Friday, April 26, 2019

Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line, by Paul Gilroy

Gilroy's book of 2000 - published in the UK with a different title, Beyond Camps - has a renewed relevance and a prophetic-minatory power, given the upheaval of racialised reterriorialisation / ethnonationalism in recent years, in defiance of globalized deterritorialization / cosmopolitanism / etc.

PAUL GILROY, Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line
director's cut, the Village Voice, May 2 2000.

by Simon Reynolds

It was Randall Jarrell, I think, who took the entire oeuvre of Yeats, did the pre-computer age equivalent of a word-search, and discovered the matrix of forty or so favorite (that's to say, over-used) words and tropes that encapsulated the poet's aesthetic. You could do something similar to Against Race, the new book by Paul Gilroy, the black British cultural studies maven and Yale Professor of Sociology and African American studies.

On one side, there'd be the list words that make Gilroy frown: purism, essentialism, roots, unanimism, primordialism, homeland.

On the other, the words that make Gilroy smile: hybrid, syncretic, cosmopolitan, transcultural, creole, heteroculture, and, especially, diaspora.

Against Race's contentious contention is that even in their "weak" cultural forms ("mild ethnocentrisms" identity politics, discourses of racial pride), the first frowned-upon cluster of words are philosophically on the path that leads to a bunch of even nastier words: ultranationalism, fraternalism, militarism, fascism, ethnic cleansing.

Against Race is going to upset a lot of people. With admirable courage and forthrightness, Gilroy dismisses race as a quasi-biological mystification, a toxic concept that, even when turned around into black-is-beautiful pride or made the basis of resistance, has basically fucked up our thought. Railing against the "cheap pseudo-solidarities" offered by ethnic loyalty on the grounds that they effectively terminate politics (in the sense of coalition, mediation, negotiation, alliance), Gilroy aims to discredit what he calls "race-thinking" or "raciology". He aims to analyse the history of race as a concept in the same way that Michel Foucault interrogated "sexuality" as discourse and discipline.

Gilroy traces the way the near-simultaneous birth of "rationality" and "nationality" at the start of the modern era led to pseudo-scientific mergers of superstition and logic such as eugenics and theories of racial decline through miscegenation. Imperialism, Darwinism and the emergence of ecology, and the growing importance of what Gilroy calls (after Foucault) "biopolitics," created the context for ideas of the people or volk as a quasi-biological organism rooted in specific territory. This in turn led to the Nazis's demand for lebensraum and the literalisation of their slogan "blood and soil"--where the soil is soaked in the blood of the original but now exterminated inhabitants of the conquered territory.

What is going to offend a lot of people is the way that Gilroy shows that fascism is not the special genius of the German people, or even the white race. He reveals not just alarming parallels but strange alliances and mutual respect pacts between black separatist groups and white supremacists. The British National Party actually demonstrated in support of a Bermudan Rastafarian who wanted the UK government to fund his "return" to Ghana. That sounds bizarre, but if you listen to the Seventies roots reggae of groups like The Congos and Israel Vibration, you will hear the word "repatriation" being sung with disconcerting yearning and anticipation.

Even more startling is the story of how Marcus Garvey met with the Ku Klux Klan in 1922 and concluded that they shared similar ideals of purifying and standarizing the race. Gilroy dubs this syndrome "fraternalist mirroring"--blood-brotherhoods who are enemies but who respect each other as honest representatives of their race, and actually even admire each other's brutality. Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association anticipated the European fascists with their use of uniform and drill. In 1937, Garvey boasted "we were the first Fascists... Mussolini copied fascism from me. " Long after the defeat of the great dictactors, his son Marcus Garvey Jnr called in 1974 for "African lebensraum" and talked about "African National Socialism." What connects these depressing examples is a fundamental nation-building narrative, argues Gilroy, that goes back to Moses and underpins the careers of Hitler, Farrakhan, and Milosevic to name just a few: the shepherding of a weak, scattered, decadent but "chosen" people, by a messiah-like leader, towards its manifest destiny and/or promised land.

Against all these different manifestations of "ethnic absolutism", with their tendencies towards authoritarianism, militarism, and pageants of primordial kinship, Gilroy marshalls the concept of diaspora. As developed in The Black Atlantic (his book about the cultural traffic connecting West Africa, the Caribbean, the Southern USA and the U.K), diasporic identity has nothing to do with chosen exile or mere migration; Gilroy stresses the crucial dimension added by the forced nature of the dispersal. It might seem odd to valorize such cataclysmic traumas as the scattering of the Jews or slavery, but Gilroy--himself a child of the Black Atlantic--values the end result: a kind of subject-in-process, neither totally assimilated to the new culture nor able to preserve the old folkways. In turn, diasporic peoples unavoidably transform the cultures they pass through; they unsettle as they settle. London, whose popular culture is a mish-mash of Jamaican, Indian and imported Black American music and style, is one example; the entirety of Brazilian culture is another, where the ideal of mesticagem (mixing) was enshrined as state policy only a few decades after slavery was abolished in the late Nineteenth Century.

Unfortunately the weakest parts of Against Race are those concerned with the play of hybridities and essentialisms in modern pop culture. While you've got to admire his guts in dissing current rap as mere "pseudo-rebellion" and appreciate his chutzpah in using Luther "2 Live Crew'" Campbell's professed debt to lecherous Brit comedian Benny Hill as proof that hip hop is not a purely black artform, Gilroy's analyses of contemporary rap and R&B are riddled with strained over-interpretations, non-sequiturs, and arguments that trail off frustratingly. There's also a fogey-ish slant to his repetitious complaints about the video age and its privileging of image over sound, or his misinformed identification of sampling and programmed rhythm with musical de-skilling (no, Paul, it's just a new form of digital-not-manual virtuosity).

Despite his nostalgia for the bespectacled seriousness of Curtis Mayfield and the fluent fingers of bassist Marcus Miller, he does acknowledge that it's precisely in the domain of computerized dance music that the praxis of "multiculture" is at its most vital--clubs, raves, pirate radio, are the real Rock Against Racism, he argues. Indeed, rave's implicity anti-fascist bodypolitics can be traced all the back to the secret parties in Nazi Germany where jazz was played on gramophones rather than by live bands. The sound-not-visuals oriented hybridity of underground dance contrasts with the "specular" orientation of "corporate sponsored multiculture", where imagery of blackness as vitality, health, beauty and physical potency circulate in music videos, sports, fashion, and advertising, and negritude has been transformed "from a badge of insult into an increasingly powerful but still very limited signifier of prestige".

As Gilroy concedes, some of the race-thought eradication he wants to see is already being implemented by globalisation. But he doesn't really take on the quite powerful notion that ideas of local tradition and ethnic identity might be useful resources for resistance, if only in the mechanical sense of a drag or recalcitrant counterweight to capitalism's tendency to dissolve all forms of solidarity and difference. This in turns opens up another set of problems that Gilroy acknowledges but doesn't attempt to resolve: how to avoid the kind of homogenisation caused by globalisation without being insular, Luddite, nativist; how to avoid the weak and banal forms of rootless cosmpolitanism in which "everything becomes... blended into an impossibly even consistency" .

The problem is that Nietzche was right: a fierce sense of identity and an us-versus-them worldview creates a certain kind of will, vehemence, and certainty that people find attractive and energizing. Which is why, as the old ethnic, regional and religious tribalisms fade, new ones keep emerging around culture and consumption--new volks like death-metal fans, snowboarders, Abercrombie and Fitch wearers. Maybe, for all Gilroy's hopes, there's actually an innate and almost pre-cultural instinct towards tribalism--look at the way children instinctively form gangs and show hostility towards the non-same. Humanism and tolerance have to be learned, they're part of the civilising process (which is why Nietzche was against civilisation and regarded the "will to stupidity" as an evolutionary advantage). Fascism and ethnocentrism can also draw upon all the irrational romance of the archaic and mythological--the seductive sagas of decline and rebirth, the resurrection of lost imperial powers and the inauguration of new eras. In response, Gilroy imagines abandoning the mythopoeic allure of antiquity and instead relocating utopia in the future: a "heterocultural, postanthropological and cosmopolitan yet-to-come".

In the end, the grand problem at the heart of Against Race is how to reinvent "that perilous pronoun "we" without lapsing into the inclusion/exclusion effect, into us/them psychology with all its consolations and intoxications. Gilroy's answer is to wield a bigger "We" that will hopefully subsume the smaller, squabbling "we's"--a species-level "strategic universalism" that repairs the shattering damage caused by raciology to the notion of the human. Following his hero Franz Fanon, the great anti-colonialist thinker, he wants to renew Europe's humanist project and simultaneously "purge and redeem" the Enlightement of its darkside (imperialism, racism, the coupling of reason and superstition that culminated in the scientific slaughter of the concentration camps). It's a noble but somewhat woolly ideal, and it's ironic that Gilroy takes heart from the way white and black unite to fight malevolent extra-terrrestials in movies like Independence Day and Men In Black, without realising that this is just racism on the cosmic scale, war against monstrous Others that truly are alien.

Weirdly , Against Race feels both overlong and sketchy. Passages of amazing lucidity and original insight alternate with garbled meanders where Gilroy seems perpetually on the verge of actually saying something. He also has an annoying habit of ending sections with long series of questions that propose fruitful areas of further enquiry, which only serves to frustrate the reader by making you think 'well, why didn't you enquire further?' Gilroy's prose demeanor can also be off-putting--a controlled simmer of indignation beneath the cool surface of professorial elegance, revealed in odd verbal tics of squeamishness like his use of phrases like "unwholesome ideology" and "unsavory political phenomena" to describe things he disapproves of, like the Afrikaaner Voortrekkers. Other rhetorical gestures have the flavor of the lectern--lots of "I want to ask" or "I want to argue" , constant admonishments not to overlook or pass over too quickly the role of X in Y, calls for vigilance and diligence, soundings of notes of caution. Schoolmarmy tone and what Gilroy himself calls "my own wilfully dislocated argument" aside, Against Race is a brave and compelling book.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

pop and the visual arts (an interview)

an interview with me for the website of the Corcoran School of Art, Washington D.C., 2013

What was your first musical love?

My first musical love would be things I heard through my parents, so Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, musicals like High Society and West Side Story. And things heard off the radio like “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Yellow Submarine.” The first musical love I made for myself, though, would be punk—specifically, the Sex Pistols, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, X Ray Spex, the Slits.

What’s the difference between listening as a fan and listening as a critic?

I’ve been doing it as a critic for so long I’m not sure I can remember. I was listening like a critic before I actually was one, because I was such an ardent reader of the British music press and already half-knew that’s what I was going to be when I grew up. As far as I can tell, the main difference is that you listen not just for pleasure but always with the formation of new ideas as a goal. You want the music not just to satisfy but to give you new thoughts and new sensations. So this inevitably creates a bias, a distortion of sensibility.

For instance whenever I have written really rampantly about a new form of music—like, say, grime in the early 2000s, at a certain point I’ll have said everything I’m capable of saying on the subject. Unless the music keeps moving ever onwards, it won’t be able to stimulate new ideas in me. Most genres settle down after a while—even the most exciting and fast-moving ones can’t sustain that pace forever.

People who are just fans, who purely enjoy the genre, will probably stick around longer than a critic-obsessive. But for someone like me, the way I’m wired, I will want to move on. It may well be that genre continues to generate quality tunes, but if the broader contours of the genre or scene aren’t evolving or mutating, then there’s nothing more to say about it. So that is kind of occupational hazard or limitation—that you are not that interested in genres, or individual artists for that matter, who just solidly plug away churning out good-to-great stuff. A critic—or at least critic of the kind I am—is always looking for the next leap forward, the new development. Because it forces your mind to come up with new ideas, new language.

How has technology (LPs vs. MP3s, studio vs. laptop, whatever) changed the way we experience music?

A book could be written about this subject. Well, books have been. And indeed my book Retromania is partly about that. The short answer is that listening has become a lot more convenience-oriented. Our ability to move it around, pause and restart it, share it, make playlists of it, acquire it, check it out without paying for it, has astronomically increased, through mp3s, iPods, Soundcloud, Youtube, etc etc. But something of its aura has been damaged; it has been depreciated, like a currency that’s too common. The idea of the album as a whole work that you reverently listen to, an aesthetic experience that you submit to—that is something that you have to make a really conscious effort to recreate. Especially if you’re listening on the same machine that you also access the internet, social media, etc, on. The temptation is always to multitask and do something else while you listen. Partial-attention syndrome.

Any observations on the link between music and the visual arts?

Again, books have been written, etc. A very good one is Simon Frith and Howard Horne’s Art Into Pop, which is all about the British art school tradition of forming bands. And I explore the same kind of connections in my own books like Rip It Up and Start Again, about postpunk, where so many of those groups, in the UK and in America, were formed by art school graduates. Ian Dury is a great example of this—a pupil of Peter Blake (of Sgt. Pepper’s cover fame), Dury did art teaching himself in his pre-fame days.

However I would flip the question and argue that music—or at least pop music—is a visual art in itself. The instances of popular youth music that are purely about the music are quite rare instances—even Deadhead culture, which would seem to be not very style oriented, has a lot to do with light shows and trippy colors (not forgetting the whole tie-dye thing). But specifically in terms of capital A “Art,” pop music has always been as much about clothes, stage moves, theatricality, spectacle… about packaging, album covers, posters, T-shirts, logos, promotional campaigns … about videos and films too.

Pop is a messy hybrid of music, visuals, lyrics, business, discourse. In the early decades of pop and rock, pop stars usually had teams of experts providing these elements: a group would have favorite photographers, or fashion designers they worked with, promo directors, graphic artists doing the logo and the album covers. Groups that took a very active and informed direct involvement in directing all of that were quite unusual—the David Bowies and Roxy Musics and Talking Heads. However as the years have gone by it’s more and more the case that bands involve themselves intensely in all the para-musical aspects of the band. Look at a group like Vampire Weekend, who design their own record covers and clearly have firm opinions about typography and such like. The new DIY artists in underground music often create the whole package themselves—the music, but also the record covers and the little abstract or weird promos they put on YouTube. I guess the software used in all these processes is not only affordable, but the skills required are transferable.

In your recent New York Times piece on David Bowie’s new album, you wrote, “The Bowie-esque has been omnipresent.” How would you describe Bowie’s influence on the visual arts? Is there another recording artist with a comparable influence?

I don’t know much about any direct influence on artists he’s had. But he’s really beloved in the art world, as he is in the fashion world, in part because he’s paid so much attention to that side of pop—he’s really knowledgeable. Bowie was actually a critic for a while at Modern Painters in the Nineties, wasn’t he? But he’s also written songs about artists—“Andy Warhol,” “Joe the Lion”—which is partly about Chris Burden. So there’s a kind of mutual admiration pact between Bowie and the art world. Same with Roxy Music.

The recent Corcoran exhibition Pump Me Up celebrates DIY DC subculture of the 80s—hardcore and go-go music. How can today’s art school students profit by the lessons of untrained artists and musicians?

My talk is going to be about the history of DIY and how it’s changed in the digital age. I don’t want to give too much away, but it is a polemical argument and one of the things I will be suggesting is that there is no special virtue to be claimed for doing-it-yourself. Simply doing-it-yourself doesn’t guarantee that the “it” you’re doing is worthwhile or significant.

I’m also not sure that the equation between “do it yourself” and “untrained” holds anymore, if “untrained” is meant to signify amateurish, messy, raw, etc. Because digital facilitation software means that you can produce really glossy, polished, professional sounding and looking stuff at minimal cost. To be lo-fi, ragged, etc. is a deliberate aesthetic choice, a refusal of professionalism—in some ways more contrived than just letting your progams tidy up your work. The kind of “brut”-like authenticity or raw power that was once attributed to unfinished or messy, defective music/art/etc.—that equation no longer works, I don’t think. If you listen to a lot of “underground” (another word that is increasingly vaporous and unstable these days) music, it’s actually pretty slick and shiny.

Favorite artists, graphic designers, photojournalists?

I don’t have a mental list of favorite artists like I do with music. I can tell you a few things in recent years that I’ve found powerful. Mark Leckey’s “Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore.” Phil Collins’s “The World Won’t Listen.” Paul Chan’s “7 Lights”…. I’m sure there must be others.

Graphic designers, I tend to think of ‘music,’ and in that category I do like the obvious postpunk ones (Malcolm Garrett, Barney Bubbles, Peter Saville, etc.), the obvious techno-rave ones (like Designers Republic, others where I don’t know the designer as such but I just like the label’s look, e.g., Reinforced Records, PCP, Underground Resistance).

Then more recently I really like the work of Julian House of Intro, who has done sleeves for Broadcast and Stereolab, but also is the co-founder of the label Ghost Box, for whom he does all the artwork as well as recording under the name The Focus Group. I also really like the look of the releases put out by Ian Hodgson as Moon Wiring Club, an example of the syndrome of the contemporary musician who handles the audio-visual output in its entirety.

Saturday, April 13, 2019



The ObserverApril 7th 1991

by Simon Reynolds 

"We lurch a lot," says Bill Drummond of The KLF. "I've never followed a set path. There has only been this feeling of getting closer to something. A beckoning peak!"
Over the past four years, Drummond and his partner Jimmy Cauty have veered chaotically from mammoth success to dismal catastrophe, leaving a trail of half-completed projects and unrealised pipe dreams. Operating under a variety of cryptic names, they've been guided only by a loose philosophy that Drummond calls "zenarchy", based on improvisation, getting bored quickly, and moving on.
Drummond's active involvement in pop began in the late Seventies as guitarist in the Liverpudlian art-punk group Big In Japan, and a subsequent role as manager of Echo and The Bunnymen. Several years later, working as an A&R consultant for WEA Records, Drummond met a like mind in Cauty, and in 1987 the pair formed The Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu, taking the name from a mythical anarchist secret society.
Their first single 'All You Need Is Love' quickly became notorious for its barefaced samples of the Beatles and Sam Fox, and a subsequent LP was withdrawn following an injunction instigated by Abba, in reprisal for samples from their 'Dancing Queen'.
In the summer of 1988, the duo reached Number One as The Timelords with their novelty hit 'Doctor In The Tardis', an annoying hybrid of Gary Glitter and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and documented the escapade in the book The Manual; How To Have A Number One The Easy Way.
Such stunts earned Drummond and Cauty the reputation of pranksters. For some they were heroic mischief-makers in the mould of Malcolm McLaren, for others merely an irritant in the gimmicky, self-publicising tradition of Jonathan King.
Drummond, now 37, sees it differently. "McLaren has a hunger for a public profile, whereas I think Jimmy and I shy away from that. We don't have a master plan, just impulses that we act upon. We've never set out to irritate but I know that we annoy people because we seem to be very knowing — simply because of all our experience in the business, we do know a lot more than a bunch of 19-year-olds who are completely instinctive and naive."
None the less, the duo rapidly grew sick of their reputation. "There was a point when we really only existed on the pages of the music papers. And we wanted out of it. We liked the idea of achieving something that had no irony and no reference points."
They drew inspiration from acid house and rave culture, which they found refreshing precisely because it was unmediated and unselfconscious. "The rave scene was a complete rejection of Eighties 'Style culture' mentality, which I always loathed because it was elitist and joyless. Acid house was all-embracing and inclusive, but like anything new, it quickly built up its own class structure and code. But then in 1989, when the big raves started along the orbital motorways, the scene opened up again."
Early in 1990, as The KLF, the duo released Chill Out, an album of beat-free "ambient house", designed as a soothing soundtrack to the crack-of-dawn come-down after all-night raves. Despite a record cover that spoofed Pink Floyd's Atom Heart Mother and samples that ranged from Fleetwood Mac's 'Albatross' to Acker Bilk, for many people Chill Out was the first time the duo had made music without having their tongue wedged in their collective cheek.
Towards the end of last year, The KLF had a huge hit with the manic techno-mantra 'What Time Is Love'. But any doubts that Drummond and Cauty were finally succeeding on their own musical merits were scotched in February when their '3AM Eternal' got to Number One, and their new album, The White Room, entered the Top Ten.
Despite their two Number One hits, The KLF are "perpetually broke", partly because they run their own record label and partly because of 'the never-ending saga' of their full-length movie The White Room. "We've spent £200,000 on it already, but we need £1.5 million to finish it," says Drummond ruefully. So they've released the soundtrack album first, and are waiting to "knock on doors to ask for money". In the meantime The KLF are determined to avoid a planned career. Says Drummond, "We prefer just to roam."

The KLF + Massive Attack

The New York Times, August 18th 1991

by Simon Reynolds

So volatile is the club scene that few artists have been able to make a career out of dance music, which is released mostly as singles. When dance groups do make an album, it usually consists of a few singles and a heap of filler.
But in the aftermath of Britain's "acid house" revolution — the psychedelic trance-dance music played on samplers, synthesizers and drum machines — a new breed of dance group has emerged, one that looks to the album format as an opportunity to explore its ideas. The last year has seen probing albums like 808 State's Ex:el, Bassomatic's Set the Controls for the Heart of the Bass and the Shamen's En-Tact.
Now Massive Attack's Blue Lines and the KLF's White Room suggest a breakthrough for dance music intended to be heard at home. They may even herald the return of the concept album, not seen in disco since the days of Earth, Wind and Fire. And after building a reputation in England — the KLF has had three hit singles, Massive Attack glowing reviews — the two groups are poised to conquer the United States.
Massive Attack's origins lie in an early 80's rap collective called the Wild Bunch, from Bristol, in England's West Country. The band's 1986 cover version of 'The Look of Love' is credited with influencing Soul II Soul's hybrid of funk, reggae and hip-hop. But because Massive Attack was slow to record its debut album, the group is regarded as a follower in Soul II Soul's shift toward a laid-back, contemplative dance sound. Blue Lines (Circa/Virgin America 2-91685; CD and cassette) takes this to the next phase.
Although Massive Attack uses house and hip-hop techniques like sampling, rapping and turntable-scratching, most of its songs are much slower than the club norm of 120 beats per minute; they range from about 90 beats per minute to a torpid 67. Dance records usually simulate the uproar of communal celebration, but Massive Attack's vibe is meditational rather than gregarious. The group has talked of its admiration for Pink Floyd, its desire to be considered primarily an album band and its reluctance to have its records categorized as dance music.
On the liner notes, Massive Attack pays tribute to the inspiration of such unlikely ancestors as the post-punk experimental group Public Image Limited, the jazz-rock cosmonauts the Mahavishnu Orchestra and fusioneers like Herbie Hancock. More predictably, Massive Attack cites Isaac Hayes, the pioneer of symphonic soul, and the legendary reggae production team Studio One.
Mr. Hayes's influence comes through on the epic 'Safe From Harm' and the mournfully sweeping, string-laden 'Unfinished Sympathy', both of which were hit singles in Britain. But Massive Attack's real originality lies in more tranquil tracks like 'One Love', with its mesmerizing clockwork rhythm and jazzy, electric-piano pulsations. The title track, 'Blue Lines', combines purring keyboards, a sleepwalking beat and a soft-spoken rap soliloquy that's far from the self-assertive bluster associated with hip-hop. As the rapper 3D declares, "No tension in my life/'Cause the way I deal is hazy."
On 'Daydreaming', 3D lets his mind drift on a stream of consciousness in which he refers to Robert De Niro and quotes from 'Fiddler on the Roof' and the Beatles, in between expounding an almost Zen Buddhist philosophy of sublime inertia. He talks of "living in my headphones," of floating like helium above the hyperactive "trouble and strife" of everyday life.
On the similarly mystical 'Hymn of the Big Wheel', Horace Andy's vocal is swathed in eddies of ethereal sound more appropriate to Brian Eno's production style than a dance record. Like the music of the cosmic rock groups that Massive Attack admires, its sound evokes interstellar imagery. But Blue Lines is really about being lost in inner space. This record is the dance-music equivalent of Miles Davis's Kind of Blue, a shift toward a more interior kind of music.
The KLF flirts with the cosmic and the conceptual, but in a less lofty, more tongue-in-cheek fashion than Massive Attack. In the video for the single '3 A.M. Eternal' (which recently appeared in the Billboard Top 10), the KLF. is garbed in ceremonial robes and moves in formation as though enacting a religious rite. On the album The White Room (Arista AR8657; CD and cassette), the group mythologizes itself as a nomadic cult of outsiders on a vague quest. The obsession with secret societies dates back to the band's earlier incarnations.
The KLF's core members, Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, met in 1987 and formed a rap group called the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu (the Jamms), taking the name from a fictional anarchist organization said to have been fighting authority since the dawn of history. Later, they called themselves the Timelords, after another mysterious sect of warriors against evil, this time taken from the BBC's cult science fiction series Doctor Who.
As the Jamms and the Timelords, Mr. Drummond and Mr. Cauty were known principally as pranksters. Mr. Drummond described their philosophy as "zenarchy." Promoting their first single, 'All You Need Is Love', they daubed their logo on billboards throughout Central London. The Jamms' 1987 album had to be withdrawn after Abba, one of many groups sampled on the record, threatened legal action. As the Timelords, the duo scored a No. 1 hit in England with a novelty single called 'Doctorin' the Tardis'.
But Mr. Drummond and Mr. Cauty grew tired of their reputation as mischievous pop strategists. They decided that, in Mr. Drummond's words, "irony and reference points are the dark destroyers of great music." The duo longed to shed the British post-punk trait of having a master plan to, say, shock every grandmother in England. Inspired by the acid-house scene's lack of self-consciousness, they dedicated themselves to making serious trance-dance music. Renaming themselves the KLF. (it stands for the Kopyright Liberation Front, an allusion to their sampling problems), they recorded the febrile electro anthem 'What Time Is Love?'
Still, the group has never completely shed its playful side. Last year, it released Chill Out (Wax Trax 7155; all three formats), an album of "ambient house" — house music with the beat removed to leave a tranquilizing sound-bath for tired dancers. Aware of the album's affinity for the cosmic rock of the early 70's, they put a photograph of sheep grazing on the album cover — a reference to Pink Floyd's Atom Heart Mother. The joke is continued by another ambient group, the Orb, on its soon-to-be-released album Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld (Big Life/ Mercury 511034; CD and cassette), the cover of which spoofs Pink Floyd's Animals.
This year the KLF released The White Room, the soundtrack to its unfinished movie of the same title. On songs like 'Church of the KLF', the duo brings the mystical side of Britain's youth culture to consciousness. The song '3 A.M. Eternal' celebrates the feeling of having transcended time through spending a night in nonstop trance-dancing. Earlier this summer, the KLF. held a summer solstice party on the remote Scottish island of Jura, where the group and its guests dressed in yellow robes and burned a giant wicker man in imitation of a Celtic pagan ritual.
The KLF is simultaneously celebrating and mocking acid house's revival of the transcendental imagery of the hippie era. When the acid craze swept Britain in 1988, participants called it the "second summer of love." Album-oriented groups like Massive Attack and the KLF. suggest that the psychedelic dance revolution has now entered its progressive rock phase. So long as bands can avoid resurrecting the sterile monumentality and self-indulgence of groups like Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, this is a promising development.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Stephen Malkmus

Steven Malkmus - Groove Denied bio / text
Domino Records, 2019

by Simon Reynolds

When Stephen Malkmus first arrived on the scene in the early Nineties, as frontman and prime creative force in Pavement, the area of music with which he was associated couldn’t really have been further from the techno-rave sounds of the day. Electronic dance music, then as now, was about posthuman precision, inorganic textures, and hyper-digital clarity. Whereas the lo-fi movement in underground rock championed a messthetic of sloppiness, rough edges, and raw warmth -  a hundred exquisitely subtle shades of distortion and abrasion. “Imperfect sound forever” was the rallying cry for a micro-generation of slacker-minded dreamers and misfits.

Fast forward to the present and here comes Malkmus with a surprising new project that embraces the very digital tools and procedures he’d have once gone out of his way to avoid. Groove Denied – Stephen’s first solo album without his cohorts the Jicks since 2001 – was made using Ableton’s Live, a software sequencer and “digital audio workstation” that is the preferred tool of discerning techno producers and deejays worldwide. Instead of a human-powered rhythm section of electric bass and drums, Malkmus’s arsenal further includes drum machines, along with a host of plug-in FX and “soft synths” (digital simulations of vintage electronic hardware that inhabit your computer rather than take over your entire living room). 

For the first time on record, what you hear here is just Stephen and the Machine(s).

But Groove Denied is not a full-blown plunge into EDM or hiptronica, into the soundworlds of Deadmaus, Villalobos and Skee Mask. In fact, there aren’t any purely instrumental tracks on the album.  Every song is precisely that: a song, featuring Malkmus staples like an artfully askew melody and an oblique lyric.  But Groove Denied is Stephen playing hooky from his customary way of going about things, jolting himself out of a comfy routine. As Malkmus commented recently in a video interview, “It’s fun to mess with things that you’re not supposed to.”

This departure from the tried-and-tested stems back to earlier in this decade, when Malkmus spent a  couple of years living in Berlin and was exposed to the city’s vibrant club scene Back in the Nineties, Stephen had given rave culture a wide berth, in part because of bad personal associations with the drug MDMA (he’d had “a really really bad trip” on Ecstasy in 1987, bizarrely on a visit to New York to see Miles Davis perform). But in Berlin, thanks to a younger deejay friend, Malkmus made forays into the city’s world-famous all-night party scene and became fascinated by techno. “The music can be great… you can zone out, dance, and focus on music - or just get wasted!”

It would not be entirely off-base, or an overly cute rock-historical reference, to describe Groove Denied as Stephen Malkmus’s Low. Although largely recorded in Oregon, the bulk of the album was written while he was living in Berlin. Updating his home studio with Ableton and teaching himself rudimentary Pro Tools, Malkmus “started fucking with effects and loops”. He compares the process of track-construction to the way his kids “used to make these girls on my iPhone - choosing hair colour, dresses, etc. That intuitive swipe and grab thing. Chop and move the waves. Apple computer scroll style of thinking.” It’s a very different way of making music to the feel-oriented way of coming up with chord progressions and rhythm grooves on a guitar alone or jamming with a band. And in fact, electric guitar – while it does feature on Groove Denied – is really “just color for the most part”.

Yet while the methodology behind Groove Denied is absolutely 21st Century, the reference points for the sound-palette hark back to the pre-digital era. “The electronic music side of the album, I wanted it to be sonically pre-Internet,” explains Stephen. “So the EQ-ing is a bit 1970’s, that sloppy DIY sequencing. And the influences are kinda 1981 post punk - actually quite British.” “A Bit Wilder”, one of the stand-out cuts, specifically recalls Cabaret Voltaire, its slack-stringed dank-with-reverb bass a dead ringer for the Stephen Mallinder sound.  “Yes, I was thinking the Cabs - and Section 25, whose 1981 album Always Now I think is a serious underdog stoner album. That grey industrial Martin Hannett sound. But also all these cute DIY group that imitated The Cure back then – loners with 4-tracks tape recorders and dreams of “Killing An Arab”.” Malkmus says he was trying to conjure or reinhabit the “fan perspective” on things like Joy Division and the Cure - the sort of “getting it a bit wrong” that unintentionally brings something new into the world.

Groove Denied is frontloaded with this Cold Wave redux sound -  a style we’ve never heard from Stephen Malkmus before. Opener “Belziger Faceplate”, for instance, features a most peculiar processed vocal that sounds withered and grotesque, like a deflated wrinkly balloon still lingering on in your house weeks after a party.  “I envisioned ‘Belziger Faceplate’ as  made by someone off their head after a night out in Friedrichshain,” says Malkmus, referring to a district of the former East Berlin now rife with techno clubs like the legendary Berghain.  “Coming back at 5 AM, firing up the laptop in the morning light and trying to make a song, but the  instruments  are tripping over each other. You can’t even speak because of all the Ketamine or whatever!” Malkmus adds that he’s never 
tried K but “for some reason I imagine it like that”. 

Then there’s “Viktor Borgia,” a title that playfully merges the name of the comedian-pianist and the ruthless dynasty of Italo-Spanish nobles. With its stately melody and the almost-English-accented  vocal, the coordinates here are early Human League or even Men Without Hats. “Yes, I was thinking things like Pete Shelley’s ‘Homosapien’, the Human League, and DIY synth music circa 1982. And also about how in the New Wave Eighties, these suburban 18-and-over dance clubs were where all the freaks would meet – a sanctuary.”

“Forget Your Place”  features another eerily wobbled vocal a la “Belziger Faceplate” plus dub-style detonations of submarine sonar and nagging bleeps. Frankly, it sounds pretty darn wasted. “Like ‘Belgizer’, this is a pretty solid Ableton-based track – moving waves around, finding a trippy loop and throwing an echo on it,” explains Stephen, adding that “at times it feels almost childish, working with Ableton - like finger painting. But ‘Forget Your Place’ also makes me think about death – don’t ask me why!”

Alongside the early Eighties “minimal synth” and industrial  influences, the other main palette of tone-colors audible on Groove Denied is closer both to Stephen’s comfort zone and to what his fans would expect from him: “warped psych,” as he terms it, that avant-garage tradition of dirty guitars and ramshackle grooves, except that in this case, it’s “one person pretending to be a band.” That illusion is pulled off magnificently on loose ‘n’ swinging tunes like “Come Get Me” and “Love the Door,” although the electronic element manifests still with the crisp and prim pitter of drum machine beats and a spume of Moog frothing all over “Door”.  Then there’s “Rushing the Acid Frat”, whose title came from Stephen’s memories of a student fraternity at the University of Virginia that, unlike the typical beery bro frathouse, had a “Grateful Dead druggy tie-dye” vibe. Malkmus imagined “Rushing” as a “Louie Louie”-style shindig rumpus to soundtrack a “Star Wars bar scene in such a frat… It’s kinda 12-bar, but gigged with psych lyrics”.

As the album enters the homestretch, it returns to more familiar Malkmusian terrain, with a warmer, grittier sound. “I did frontload Groove Denied with the stuff that signals “80’s/cold,” he says. “That stuff excited me the most - and it sounded braver. If I had another year, it could have been all in that style.”  Still, with the second half offering gorgeous tunes like the hazy-lazy ramble “Bossviscerate” and the glittering “Ocean of Revenge” – both graced with his signature style of odd-angled melodic beauty – who’s complaining?  Mellow closer “Grown Nothing” feels like Malkmus easing back towards the sound of his recent album with the Jicks, Sparkle Hard. In fact, although it has been released after Sparkle, 70% of Groove Denied was completed before work on the Jicks record. 
Indeed, Malkmus’s explorations with sound-processing influenced that album, most notably with the unexpected appearance of Auto-Tune on a couple of tracks.

Groove Denied will shake up settled notions of what Malkmus is about and what he’s capable of, repositioning him in the scheme of things. But looking at it from a different angle, his  engagement with state-of-art digital tech actually makes perfect sense. After all, Nineties lo-fi – the sound in which he and Pavement were initially vaunted as leaders and pioneers - was nothing if not insistently sonic – it was all about the grain of guitar textures, about gratuitously over-done treatments and ear-grabbing effects. Noise for noise’s sake.  It’s just that it was looking to older modes and antiquated technology. From the Big Muff and the Cry Baby Wah pedal through to today’s deliberately distorted deployment of pitch-correction, there’s really an unbroken continuity: the creative misuse of technology, the aestheticization of mistakes and flaws, wrongness-as-rightness.

As Stephen tweeted recently on the subject of Auto-Tune’s omnipresence in contemporary music-making: “We long 4 transformation....and we humans fucking luv tools.”

Monday, April 1, 2019

RIP Scott Walker

Scott Walker annoyingly chose the week I was away on a trip to shuffle off this mortal coil, denying me the chance to pay tribute to one of my favorite musicians - one whom I've never quite had the opportunity to write at length about, somehow. In fact, the only times I've written about him have been either ludicrously brief (the micro-review for Blender  reproduced here without its grade out of five, or its 'pick hit' tune guidance, but with its 'in bold' dek, penned by me as if with a gun to the head) or part of a 4AD round-up (again dealing with the Drift)  or only tangentially (in the Sight and Sound piece about rock documentaries, so the angle was more on the approach and execution than the artist per se). Nonetheless here they are below. I do wonder how I would fare given an unconfined  occasion to address his life's work...  There's an impenetrable mystery and opacity to his songs, a secretiveness and privacy...  I can't help thinking that writing about the first four solo albums, or Climate of Hunter  (these are the ones I love and listen to with active pleasure), at length, would result in bombastic vagaries.  There are certainly some other artists who fall into that adored-but-daunting category (Arthur Lee, for one). But I daresay I would come up with something.

Scott Walker
The Drift
Blender (2007)

by Simon Reynolds

 Exquisitely poised torment from the cult crooner, his first record in a decade.

Scott Walker’s legend is based on his four late 1960s solo albums, an astonishing body-of-song that bridged the seemingly vast gulf between Righteous Brothers-style pop balladry and the anguished avant-gardism of European film-makers like Ingmar Bergman. Walker is something like a cinematographer of sound, using dense orchestration, imagistic lyrics, and, not least, his own elegantly harrowed voice, to paint the sort of motion pictures that trouble you long after you’ve left the theater.  Some songs on The Drift (his first album since 1995’s Tilt) are inspired by specific historical incidents--Mussolini’s lover deciding to be executed by his side on “Clara,” a lonely Elvis talking to his stillborn twin on “Jesse”. But mostly the lyric shards that issue from the 63-year old Walker’s peerless mouth--“the slimy stars,” “nose holes caked in black cocaine”--conjure abstract scenarios of crisis and corruption, dread and decay. From “Jolson and Jones” (its chorus, “curare!”, is the name of a poison that relaxes your muscles until you die of asphyxiation) to the hair-raising cackles of gargoyle laughter in “The Escape”, The Drift is unremittingly somber. It makes Radiohead’s Kid A look like a walk in an extremely sunny park. Persevere, though, and you’ll find that The Drift is that most rare and unnatural thing--a nightmare you look forward to repeating. 

Excerpt on 30th Century Man, the Scott Walker documentary, from 
TOMBSTONE BLUES: The Music Documentary Boom
Sight & Sound, May 2007 (full piece here)

by Simon Reynolds

Documentaries about scenes or sounds are far out-numbered by ones about individual creative units (a singer, musician, band…), presumably because they’re easier to make and easier to sell. Scott Walker: 30th Century Man and Joe Strummer: the Future Is Unwritten are superior examples of the rock doc as heroic biography. Both cleave to the “talking heads plus” formula but bring plenty of imaginative flair to the plus aspect.

In 30th Century Man, director Stephen Kijak frames the hermetic and hermit-like Walker as a mystery man prone to disappearing for decades at a time. Right at the start, David Bowie—the film’s executive producer and a Walker fan ever since he dated an ex-girlfriend of the singer and was forced to hear the former heart-throb crooner’s astonishing avant-MOR solo albums—asks rhetorically “who knows anything about Scott Walker?”. The doc then proceeds to shed a fair amount of light without truly penetrating the inner core of darkness that motivates this driven and uncompromising artist. 

Inclined to avoid media attention, Walker obliges with a rare on-camera interview, and comes over accommodating and articulate yet ultimately elusive. (He’s also remarkably ageless, at 63 looking uncannily like Beck’s elder brother). Associates and admirers (including Johnny Marr, Brian Eno, and Jarvis Cocker) generate a steady flow of recollections and insights, and we witness scenes from the sessions for 2006’s The Drift, Walker’s third comeback album, including the bizarre spectacle of a side of meat being used as percussion. The archival material is top-notch, ranging from Arnie Potts, a Walker memorabilia collector, guiding us through his treasure, to vintage TV appearances, to an open letter printed in a pop magazine and written by 14 fans disappointed by the avant-garde turn in the singer’s post-Walker Bros work: “don’t underestimate our force… the end is nigh, you’re way off course… your reign is over--goodbye Scott.”

One effective Kijak device is filming the famous fans listening to key songs, catching their facial reactions and off-the-cuff thoughts. Alison Goldfrapp, of all people, nails the quality of Walker’s voice circa his second comeback album Tilt-- “it’s beautiful and unpleasant at the same time...” . And you gotta love Marc Almond for bravely admitting to loathing that 1995 album: “ I went to the playback and everyone was sitting silent and reverent and I thought ‘is it just me or is this awful?’ 

The solitary blunder on Kijak’s part is using cheesy abstract computer animations to backdrop some of Walker’s most sublime songs, like “Boy Child” and “The Electrician”. 30th Century Man is genuinely informative, with plenty of revelations about Scott’s working methods, but in the end you don’t really understand what impelled his journey from Righteous Brothers-style stardom to a solo career whose ambition was seemingly to fuse Nelson Riddle and Ingmar Bergman. There’s a passing reference to a lifetime of suffering nightmares, and a palpable sense--transmitted in just the delivery of the song “Rosary” on Later with Jools-- of a profound sense of human abjection (something strengthened by one commentator’s comparison of Walker’s work with Francis Bacon’s). But in the end Scott remains an enigma, which is perhaps how it should be. 

And wrote again about Scott Walker and The Drift in this 4AD - the Dozen survey for eMusic in 2006


The Drift



Ivo first approached his hero Scott Walker back in the mid-Eighties, asking him to sing on the second This Mortal Coil album Filigree & Shadow. Nothing came of it, but perseverance obviously pays off eventually, because twenty years later 4AD got to release the legendary balladeer’s comeback album The DriftWalker’s four astonishing solo albums of the late Sixties showed that he was a kind of cinematographer of sound, using intricately detailed orchestration, opaque-but-vivid lyrics, and his elegantly anguished voice to paint the kind of motion pictures that scar your memory and fill the subsequent days with a vague feeling of disquiet. With The Drift, the 63 year old Walker clearly aimed to make a work on a par with the great European modernists of film, such as Ingmar Bergman. Accordingly the themes are heavy (songs about the gruesome execution by mob of Mussolini and his lover, about twilight-era Elvis conversing with his dead twin Jesse) while the execution is challenging for artist and listener alike, involving bizarre gambits like pounding sides of dead meat for percussion, horns that caw bleakly like crows, harrowingly atonal string parts, and, on “The Escape”, eruptions of hair-raising demonic laughter. The lyrics that issue from Walker’s peerless mouth--“the slimy stars,” “nose holes caked in black cocaine”--evoke atmospheres of grotesquerie and malaise. The Drift makes Radiohead’s Kid A look like a walk in an extremely sunny park. It is a powerful album, albeit one that is easier to admire than to love. The Drift may not get that many repeat plays but, like one of those great European modernist films, it’s something you’ll want to experience at least once. 

Soho (E don't wanna E don't wanna E don't wanna E)


The Observer, January 6th 1991
by  Simon Reynolds

The day their single 'Hippychick' entered the US Top 30, Soho were evicted from their squat in Hackney. Since then 'Hippychick' has scaled the American charts and has sold over half a million copies; not bad for a record that cost £300 to make and a day to record.
Tim London (the group's architect) and the singing twins Jackie and Pauline have just returned from weeks of superstar treatment in the States, to the squalor of their new, structurally unsound flat above an East-End drycleaners. It's unlikely that they'll have to put up with the "carcinogenic fumes" much longer. 'Hippychick' is about to be re-released in the UK, and Soho's days of penury and anonymity are surely numbered.
When it was first released in Britain earlier this year, the single grazed the Top 75 and enjoyed minor success on the dance scene. Punters focused on Soho's "witty" sampling of the guitar riff from The Smiths' 'How Soon Is Now'. It seemed as if dance culture was exacting revenge on Morrissey for his "burn down the disco/hang the DJ" crusade of a few years ago. So far Soho's impudence hasn't provoked any comeback for the ex-Smiths: in fact, Johnny Marr (who wrote and played the riff) is said to approve.
But in the USA, where The Smiths are only known on the college radio scene, people responded to 'Hippychick' as a seething, hardcore dance track. "In the States they just treat that riff as a noise," says Jackie. "It could have been a fart being sampled for all they care."
Another thing the Americans haven't picked up on is the song's political content. "It's a conversation between a young woman and her ex-boyfriend who's a policeman," explains Pauline. "She's on a demo for the miner's strike. She's saying she's not a hippychick, she's not gonna sleep with him to change his mind, she's got no flowers for his gun."
Soho are sceptical about the hippy belief that "love and peace" are all you need to change the world, a naive idealism that's recently been revived by rave culture, with its Second and Third Summers Of Love. On the cover of 'Hippychick', Soho revive some different slogans from pop history: "hippies roll over, yuppies fight back", and the old Sex Pistols line "never trust a hippy".
"Did you ever read a book called Playpower by Richard Neville?" asks Tim. "There's a lot of good ideas for resistance in that book, but they were never followed through because drugs got in the way of intellect. It's the same now."
"Ecstasy stupefies people and makes them passive," adds Jackie. "It turns them into teddy bears."
"All this stuff about the new Summer Of Love," continues Tim. "It's more like the Summer of Having a Good Time. It's no different from Saturday Night Fever, or Mod days; it's just a tradition of young working-class kids dancing and getting out of their heads."
Despite their dance-floor success, Soho are primarily a pop group. They were reared on radio music (Slade, Gary Glitter, Barry White) and passionately believe that the seven-inch single is still pop's most concentrated and sublime form of expression.
"The late Seventies were when the single was at its best," says Pauline, "the post-punk days when you could come home with an orange Day-Glo single by X-Ray Spex." Accordingly, their forthcoming LP, Goddess, is more like a collection of singles than an album.
'Hippychick' is a typical Soho hybrid. Tim's groove is sultry techno-funk, but the twins' vocals have more in common with West Coast psychedelia than soul, and approach the eerie, forbidding quality of Grace Slick on Jefferson Airplane's 'White Rabbit'.
The album reflects Soho's radical politics and feminist affiliations. "The LP was originally supposed to be all about strong women," explains Jackie. The title track namechecks female role models like Rosa Luxemburg, Emily Pankhurst, Diane Abbott and Dusty Springfield, as well as "friends of ours that we think are right on and pretty cool."