Wednesday, June 12, 2019

RIP Andy Gill - the NME writer interviewed, in 2003, about Sheffield, postpunk, and being confused with that chap in the Gang of Four

I was really saddened to hear about the recent death of Andy Gill, who wrote superbly about postpunk, electronic music, and weirdo sounds of all types for NME during the late Seventies and Eighties, and later on became resident popular music critic at The Independent.  It was for Q, though, that he came to New York in 1993 to interview Donald Fagen, whom as it happened I was covering for The Observer. We met at the album playback for Kamakiriad and had a long and very pleasant conversation. Sadly we never did meet again, but in 2003 I interviewed Andy by telephone for Rip It Up and Start Again, about his time as the Sheffield correspondent for the New Musical Express. Below is a tidied-up transcript of our conversation, with Andy providing a richly detailed lowdown on Sheffield subculture, covering the early days of Cabaret Voltaire, Human League, Vice Versa / ABC, as well as a number of lesser-knowns and curios from the after-punk era (including I'm So Hollow, Artery, The Extras, 2.3, Molodoy). I also asked him about his experiences working at NME -  heady, boozy, conflictual - during its last golden age. 

Are you Sheffield born and bred?

“I was born in Sheffield [in 1953], but spent my teens – this is late Sixties, early Seventies – in Nottingham. And then went to Sheffield University, starting in 1973.  Although it was mainly engineers and had a good metallurgy department, it had a substantial arts side to it too. And it was a fairly leftwing place. I studied philosophy. I quickly got drawn into the student newspaper  Darts. I edited that during my second year. I did my finals in 1976.

“That year I applied in response to the famous ‘hip young gunslingers’ advert that the New Musical Express ran, when they were looking for a new writer [the one that Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons came first equal for the staff writer job, so they gave jobs to both of them,  and Paul Morley was runner-up].  During much of this time I worked part-time at a branch of the Virgin record shop in Sheffield - a funky little store at the bottom of this street The Moor.  That was pretty cool – the shop had this row of old airline seats and people would listen to albums on “cans, man!” – headphones. People would sit and listen for ages. We’d enjoy putting records on in the store. The shop had loads of deletions and cut-outs, so it was a good grounding for listening and learning about music.

“A thing to note about Sheffield then is that it was a bit of equivalent to San Francisco. It’s always had this leftist bohemia thing, in terms of attitudes. When Ornette Coleman played the UK, he’d play London, and he’d play Sheffield – because he had a constituency there, and people were prepared to go to the trouble of putting him on there.”

What were the crucial nodes of Sheffield bohemia?

“There was Rare & Racy, this store in the university district, which was full of second hand books and second hand records. Antiquarian books. It’s still there, and still a fantastic shop. The guys that run it were a bunch of old jazzbos - very bohemian. Unlike most bookstores where there’d be this hush, like in church, in Rare & Racy  there’d be this cacophonous racket of free jazz, things like Sun Ra. Or John Cage. The Rare & Racy guys only liked avantgarde jazz, contemporary European avant-garde, and old blues. So, you’d hear Skip James or Charlie Patton wheezing away at you.

“And then another key node, a venue for early electronic stuff was Meatwhistle – a sort of youth club and community centre, a place behind the city hall. Human League, Adi Newton [Clock DVA] all played there. A lot of people came out of that Meatwhistle mulch.

“Then there was Cabaret Voltaire, who had their own thing going. Before the Cabs had a record out, they used to come into Virgin.  I had hair down to my waist in those days. They came up to the counter and asked 'Have you got any records by Cabaret Voltaire?'. I’d heard of the name, and what I’d heard about them sounded really intriguing to me. So, I said ‘As far as I know they haven’t got anything out yet, but I’d really be interested in hearing them, cos it’s my kind of thing.’ I remember them being quite shocked that this guy who looked like a Ted Nugent fan was heavily into that kind of that stuff. Ever since then we’ve been mates.

“Of the two big constituencies in Sheffield as far as music goes in those days, one was metal / hard rock. Every metal band would come to play the Sheffield City Hall. When ordering up albums for the shop, 200 or 250 was a good order for an album - as an initial order that meant the band was a big seller. The only groups that did that were Sabs, Quo or Zep. 

"The other huge thing was glam. Not the Sweet or Gary Glitter, but Roxy Music and Bowie. They were a huge influence in Sheffield. It was this working-class thing of dressing up - but not just dressing up, being prepared to be outrageous and being into this weird music.”

So, Sheffield youth were into the Eno side of Roxy as much as they were into the Ferry side?

“Definitely. It was the experimental side of Roxy and glam that was interesting to most people. There was this club, the Crazy Daisy – that was the place that had a big glam night. People would go and dress up for it. 

Roxette (1977) from NWfilmarchive on Vimeo.

Mal and Rich and Chris [Cabaret Voltaire -  Stephen Mallinder, Richard H. Kirk, Chris Watson] and their gang were heavily into the sonics of Roxy. Although Mal was heavily into clothes too.  He had two rooms in his flat, and one room was where he lived and the other was his wardrobe – and he had an ironing board in the middle of it. It was just completely full of clothes. Mal was the most stylish person I’d ever met; he always had a consummate sense of style.

The Cabs - Mallinder in the middle - pic by Pete Hill

“The early Cabs gigs were trying to get a reaction – it was a racket, just squealing noise. And there’d be films behind them of god knows what: biological warfare experiments, people in chemical warfare suits. They’d collect old Super-8 footage of things like that.

"Around 1975 or 1976, we became friends. They had been going since ‘73 or ’74. So, it was a bit after that I got to meet them. They had this studio in this old industrial building. The whole building was called Western Works – and they recorded in it and called the studio Western Works.”

What were they like as people, Cabaret Voltaire?

“Richard’s always been a bit stroppy –in that very Yorkshire way. He can be hellishly stubborn. That’s a typically Yorkshire thing:  ‘if you say don’t do this, I’ll do it’.  He’s got that thing in his voice.

"In Sheffield it wasn’t like the London Musicians Collective where everyone’s got wire-rim glasses and that sort of avantgarde middle class attitude. In Sheffield, it was working class Dada. They were heavily into Dada and liked to get a reaction. Wake people up. Richard, then, mainly played guitar and clarinet. Mal did rudimentary bass and vocals, treated beyond legibility.

“Chris Watson is now quite famous. He joined Tyne Tees as a sound engineer, and since then became one of the top sound engineers in British TV. He does most of the David Attenborough things, going around the world taping the sound of weird animals. And then solo he does albums of strange ambiences of strange places. Chris was more straightforward than the other two, at first glance. It was like a René Magritte thing, where you look like you work in a bank but you do these weird art works. When you see Salvador Dali, from his appearance you know what to expect from his paintings. Whereas looking normal is like protective coloration. Chris looked more normal than Mal or Richard – and in many ways, he was more normal. But he was very interested in sonic weirdness.”

Who else was around in that moment just before and just after punk?

“There was the fanzine Gunrubber, by one Ronny Clocks – a/k/a Paul Bower. He later went into local government in London. And became a big figure in New Labour. Paul had always been very political. Gunrubber was important. 

"See, punk didn’t hit the same way in Sheffield as it did elsewhere. Punk in most other places in the UK inspired people to pick up a guitar and do the three-chord rock thing, in emulation of the Clash or the Pistols. But in Sheffield it didn’t happen that way, there were hardly any punk rock bands like that in Sheffield. Most bands wanted to make weird sounds. Early synths were prized. Or just boxes of tricks that people had made."

So, there were no Sheffield equivalent to provincial punk bands like Bristol’s The Cortinas, then?

“Well, there was 2.3, which was Paul Bower’s band. They had a single on Fast Product. But even they weren’t very punky. Paul was singer/guitarist in 2.3, but he was a scene maker as much as anything.

“Another fanzine was Steve’s Paper. That was Stephen Singleton, who formed Vice Versa – and which then turned into ABC. Steve’s zine was more gossipy and concerned with scene-making. But he was doing something at least.

“Another important node in the Sheffield scene was this club Now Society aka Now Soc. That was within the university. These guys behind Now Soc felt that what the entertainments committee were putting on was fucking rubbish – groups like Mud, or Osibisa. So, they thought ‘there’s all these local bands, we should get them in here’. They set up in one of the student bars in the university, funded through the student union. Human League did their debut performance at Now Soc, which I reviewed for NME. I always remember that gig because people had never seen a haircut like that before – Phil Oakey had the asymmetrical haircut with the floppy fringe that reached down to his chin on one side only. Phil had that look from day one. The League were doing these comical kabuki moves in a self-deprecating way. People were up for something new. Also, Kraftwerk were big in Sheffield, people there loved them.

“Another important club was The Limit. Def Leppard played there just before they broke. The Human League also. They bought these Perspex screens, on HP [hire purchase], to shield them from beer and gob thrown on them by the ‘what the fook’s this?’ people in the audience. That was to protect the synths from shorting out with beer getting in the works, which they couldn’t afford to happen.”

You did a special electronic feature for the NME, right?  A five-page pull-out on "Synthesised Sound", January 5th 1980 - the first issue of the new decade!

“Yeah. It seemed to me that there was basic split between those who used synths to make weird sounds – people like Eno, or Allen Ravenstine in Pere Ubu, or the Cabs – and then those who used the keyboards to make pianistic and organ-like sounds, which would be all the prog people like Rick Wakeman or Keith Emerson. But at that point I didn’t really know about the psychedelic precursors who were doing more interesting stuffwith synths, like Lothar and the Hand People, Silver Apples, Fifty Foot Hose. But I had been discovering weird electronic stuff since being a teenager in Nottingham. We’d go to listen to obscure electronic albums on Nonesuch by people like Morton Subotnick, in the record booths on a Saturday afternoon right in the middle of this department store in Nottingham.”  

Why do you think there is this electronic connection with Sheffield in particular, and the industrial North in general? There’s an attraction to the synthetic, and also a feeling of affinity with groups like Kraftwerk, who are from the similarly industrial Dusseldorf, or with American groups like Devo and Pere Ubu from industrial Ohio.

“It’s one of those things, musique concrete is a very industrial sound. In Sheffield you had these big steel forges, and you’d drive past and hear the sound of hammers, these really big KLANGS. That might have been influential on the Cabs – they recorded stuff that sounded like that.”

Was Sheffield starting to go into decline in the Seventies?

“In the Seventies, it still had a strong industrial base. It’s always been known as the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire. There was a deliberate decision by Thatcher to kill the city – because it was so anti-Conservative. As soon as she got into power in 1979, every program that would have helped Sheffield was denied to the city. And the city just died. I went to live in London in 1980 and as I went back to Sheffield year after year to visit, you could see it was just dying. In the Nineties it got a bit of gentrification. But it was tragic what happened to Sheffield.

“In the Seventies, though, it did still have this industrial base. People from outside of it thought of it as this grim wasteland - huge steel rolling mills the size of several football pitches, all this industrial grime. But to the people who worked in them, it was their bread and butter.

“People were still employed. And the dole culture was quite strong even then. If you were on the dole, you weren’t ashamed of being on the dole. The dole was there to enable you to have time to work on your music. So it wasn’t that everybody wanted jobs, everybody wanted desperately to avoid having to work.

“But going back to Sheffield having this image of being an industrial wasteland…. Actually, Sheffield is the most beautiful city in the UK. There was an act passed way back in the last century concerning the development of Sheffield that stipulated that there had to be substantial areas of greenery. Five minutes’ drive and you’re up in the Peak District, and if you look down on the city from the moors, you can see there’s huge parks dotting the city. If you go past Sheffield, on the M1, you see the bad areas - the old industrial areas. But over on the west side of Sheffield where the university was and where everybody I knew lived, it was beautiful. All these beautiful old stone houses. And you’re in the countryside virtually. Sheffield was called the Rome of Britain because it was built on seven hills, just like Rome was built on seven hills.

Did you find the journalistic clichés that you’d get in the early pieces on Cabaret Voltaire and so forth – Sheffield as “grey” and “grim”– annoying, then?

“They did and they do annoy, a bit. Because Sheffield is a beautiful place. Certainly compared to fucking Manchester, which really is a grim and bleak place. For sure, there were areas of Sheffield that were horrible – as there are in every town.”

Sheffield was also famously left-wing. Labour always controlled the city council.

“It was hopeless for any other party to try to get power there.  The Lib Dems have managed to share power now, thanks to what Blunkett did to the city when he was head of the council, that whole farrago with the World Student Games, which they fought tooth and nail to get, thinking it would be a big revenue earner, but it bankrupted the city. So that led to a big swing against Labour. But back in the old days, people were proud of having the cheapest buses in the UK - 5p a ride, you could get anywhere in the city.  You could get around easily on public transport, which is just as well as being built on seven hills, it was hard for cyclists. Some of the hills are pretty steep.

“In Sheffield, you could travel really easily and cheaply. You could drink cheaply – beer was cheaper than down south. People tended to walk around a lot. There weren’t that many people with cars. It was mainly a pedestrian culture. If you were in a band, you would hire vans to take the kit to the venue.”

And in Sheffield, the kind of Labour was definitely Old Labour and to the left of the spectrum. In favor of nationalization of the major industries. There were some unreconstructed communists on the council, right?

“Oh yeah, a lot of Trots. A very left-wing city and always had been. Nowadays it’s not, but nowhere is. But in those days… There’s always been an undercurrent of a Communist Anarchist Trotskyite thing.”

Yet Sheffield never really produced a militantly political postpunk group like The Pop Group or Gang of Four… You didn’t get that kind of agit-prop band.

“The groups weren’t that left wing, but the general populace was very left wing. Far more than any other British city probably – maybe there’s places in Wales or Scotland could challenge it.  The bands in Sheffield then weren’t political, they were more anarchist. It’s that Yorkshire stubbornness – ‘no you’re not going to organize me into this thing.’ That instinctive anarchism was a big spur for a lot of the musical undercurrents in Sheffield during postpunk.

“And I may have had an effect on that. Because you were more likely to get your band reviewed in NME if you played that kind of music. As the paper’s Sheffield stringer, I favored certain sounds. And occasionally groups threatened me because they were so annoyed I wasn’t covering them. I may have contributed to that Sheffield postpunk image in that sense.”

There was a period when the music papers would discover and focus attention on a Northern city as a new hotbed of postpunk action – first it was Manchester, and then Leeds, and then Sheffield, which the NME jestingly described as "This week's Leeds" - because it had become a syndrome by that point.  Then after that Liverpool, and then they moved on to Scotland. But what were the differences, and the relationships, between Sheffield and Leeds and Manchester.

“In Sheffield, we always considered Leeds a right-wing city. That’s despite Gang of Four and the Mekons coming from there. Obviously, there was a left-wing undercurrent in Leeds, connected to the university and polytechnic. But in Leeds, you had to watch out for the National Front. There was no NF in Sheffield – not at all. Whereas Leeds was a very strong centre for the National Front.

“As for Manchester, it just seemed fucking grim. I went there with the Cabs and this other group Graph, when they played the Factory in Hulme. One of them, after doing the soundcheck, went out to get some cigarettes – and got mugged.

“That would never happen in Sheffield.  Sheffield 10 is the cool area – that’s the university district. I lived in Broomhill, which was John Betjeman’s favorite suburb in all Britain. But nobody got mugged, even if you went down the red-light district, in Havelock Square.  It was still a safe place to go.”

Along with the local Sheffield stuff, in NME you also used to write about groups like Devo and Pere Ubu. Do you feel there was some kind of deep spiritual connection between Sheffield and those industrial Ohio cities Cleveland and Akron?

“I sometimes wondered about that. When The Modern Dance came out, I thought ‘this is the greatest album I’ve ever heard’. It’s still my favorite of all time. It’s perfect, it has everything for my taste buds -- the synths, the squealing noise, the attack, the moody ruminations, and the bottle-smashing musique concrete elements. It has a drive and vision that few other punk records have.

“Devo were the equivalent in their day of Zappa in his day – Zappa in his prime. That early Zappa, Mothers of Invention stuff was brilliant. Satirizing hippy culture even as it was being created, with We’re Only in It for the Money. Very farsighted. Devo were doing the same thing for the New Wave. Freedom of Choice is one of the great albums.

We know about The Human League and its offshoot Heaven 17, about Cabaret Voltaire, about Vice Versa becoming ABC, about Clock DVA… Who were some of the other notable after-punk outfits scrabbling around at that time in Sheffield?

“I’m So Hollow had one of the first Wasp synths, with the touch sensitive keyboard. They were coming from the Wire end of punk, which was big in Sheffield. Not the thrash aesthetic, but very angular and considered. Later on, I’m So Hollow would have been considered Goth, probably.

“Artery were an interesting band. They used to wear aprons onstage. But they changed style so often it was hard to get a fix on them. A curate’s egg - good in bits.

“There was also this group called Molodoy. They had a poster that said ‘Right, right bratties - Molodoy’.  That was Nadsat, the teenage slang from A Clockwork Orange. Molodoy dressed up like Alex and his droogs from A Clockwork Orange. Their music was like Wire – very angular and stern. There was tension but no release, it was a very tightly repressed sound. Quite interesting – but they never amounted to much.

Molodoy at the Limit Club, 1978
(pic by Garry Warburton)

“The Comsat Angels had so much potential, but they were dogged by bad luck, bad choices, bad decisions.  Musically they had lots of interesting ideas and they should really have been like a U2 or an Echo and the Bunnymen. They could have been a more interesting version of that kind of postpunk stadium rock. 

The Comsats were all set to tour America, supporting U2. But one of them fell ill. Robert Palmer was a big Comsats fan. Steve Fellows wrote all the Comsats songs, did the singing and guitars - and Robert Palmer invited him to work with him in the Bahamas. Steve used the money to pay off the Comsats’s debts.

Later Steve discovered and managed Gomez – they brought in a tape this record store in Broomhill, in Sheffield, where Steve was working part time."

The Northern cities might have had different vibes, musically, but they all shared a common antipathy to London - a mixture of resentment of the centralized dominance of the capital, and contempt for Southern effeteness.

“2.3 had a song that was anti-London [“I Don’t Care About London”].  They did a parody of the Clash’s ‘London’s Burning”, and it went “’London’s burning’ they all shout/but I wouldn’t even piss on it to put the fire out”. That was pretty indicative of the Sheffield attitude to the nancies down South!”

But then you moved down South in 1980…

“I felt I should get down to London and impose myself on the NME. Stop being reticent. I’d been  desperately trying to get them to accept articles on Tuxedomoon and Chrome, groups I liked from San Francisco. It was a bit of a struggle. I got a job on the staff.”

How did you find it – London, and NME?

“I felt lonely. It was so much bigger than anywhere else. I got on with the NME office people. The job was a bit of a doddle, the editing. Cos I’d edited the fortnightly student newspaper at Sheffield, I’d dealt with libel writs and all that – that was terrifying, receiving a libel writ. So, working at NME was quite easy. But in Sheffield, it being much smaller, you’d have people dropping in on their way home. But people in London live ten miles away. So, you tended to do your socializing immediately after work. It was easy to slip into that booze culture. There was a coterie of us at NME who’d go drinking for long periods at lunch times – Ian Penman, Monty Smith, Danny Baker, me. Got very drunk at lunch time and then wrote funny shit in the afternoon. That was the best part of the NME.”

Writing for the music papers in those days – especially NME but Sounds and Melody Maker too – was much more powerful than being a music journalist later on. Bands were influenced by writers… certain writers became cult figures, with mystique and intrigue wafting around them… Did you get that kind of attention?

“Sometimes. But I don’t think I ever had my photo appear in the NME. I thought that was a bad idea – because someone’s going come up to at a gig complaining about something you wrote and you might get glassed. I wanted to be anonymous.

Andy's faves of 1981, in the NME Xmas issue that year

“The other thing is that people always confused me with the other Andy Gill, the guy in Gang of Four. And he gets it the other way round, people think he’s reviewing records for The Independent. Even his dad thinks that! On tour, in America, apparently someone once came up to him and asked “Are you the Andy Gill who writes for the NME?”. Andy said “no”. And this guy goes, “oh…” – and just walked away! “

That whole late Seventies, early Eighties period – it must have been an unbelievably exciting time to be on the frontlines writing about it in real-time. It was incredibly exciting just to read about it from a distance. Punk turning into postpunk turning into New Pop…

“We used to have editorial meetings at NME - they were ghastly affairs, arguments about genres and which things should be covered and which things should be ignored.  I would be thinking ‘we should just cover all of this’.  I could never understand the factionalism, and the absolutist nature of the factionalism.”

So, you weren’t involved in a faction at NME, then?

“Not really. To an extent, there was a cluster that was me, Ian, Chris Bohn, Paul Morley. But Morley was more a gadfly and had more of a pop sensibility. It was Paul who once said that Stephen Mallinder was the sexiest man in British pop. Which was ironic because at that time Morley looked just like Mallinder!”

Talking about pop sensibility, there was this huge shift from grim and bleak postpunk to bright and bouncy ‘new pop’. And Vice Versa switched to become ABC.

“Vice Versa were an electronic band manqué - and it was only when Martin Fry joined that they became this glossy pop thing. And only when Trevor Horn got his mitts on them that they became this viable pop thing. I remember thinking: ‘Blimey, ABC and Human League in the Top 10 - it would never have happened in my day’.  I would not have bigged them up. I liked what the Human League did on Dare, but I did think it was a dilute Kraftwerk.

Vice Versa live at Futurama festival , Leeds, 1980

“The day we left Sheffield to move down to London, we did a moonlight flit to avoid paying the last lot of rent. And I remember Ian Burden – then in this group Graph -  coming round to the house. We had both been in an improvising group called the Musical Janines, with Stephen Fellows and Mick Glaisher and Kevin Bacon from the Comsats, just making a racket. 

"Anyway, it was November or October 1980, I was about to leave Sheffield and Ian comes around and says “Have you heard, the Human League have split up?” Martyn Ware and Ian Craig-Marsh had left Phil Oakey and Adrian Wright in the lurch on the eve of this big European tour. And Ian says, “Phil has asked me to join the League.” Ian could play keyboards as well as bass, you see. Ian said, ‘I’ll have to learn all their repertoire, but that’ll only take about an afternoon, cos it’s all one-finger tunes.’ But he said ‘I’m not sure whether to do it or not’. And I was like, ‘for Christ’s sake, say ‘yes’. At the very least you’ll get to see Europe, and you might make a bit of money out of it, and it’s playing in a proper band’.  

“So, Ian joined the Human League – and of course, he co-wrote ‘The Sound of the Crowd’ and ‘Love Action’. Ian wrote the riffs; Phil wrote the words.  Later on, Steve Fellows was living around Ian’s big house, so he was there when the post came one day. Ian opens this envelope and there’s a royalty cheque for the European earnings off just ‘Love Action’. And it’s a quarter of a million quid. And Ian was like, ‘oh, more money….’ and he just left it on the table! Didn’t bank it for weeks, because he’d just got so many of these checks. It’s a bit like the Joe Cocker stories.  Sheffield’s most famous singer, but he had no head for money – and he had that typical working-class self-deprecating thing. His dad supposedly found a load of checks in a drawer, dating back to the early seventies. And his mum found a cheque for hundreds of thousands of dollars in his jeans that she’d washed. Likewise, Ian, I think, was a bit embarrassed by his success.”

So was Ian Burden the musical genius of the second incarnation of the Human League?

“It was him and Jo Callis, who’d been in the Rezillos. Jo and Ian were the ones who came up with the music. Phil was the lyrics and a little bit of the music – and then the presentation, and the overall vision. I have a lot of respect for Phil - he’s stayed true to his ideals. And always he stayed in Sheffield. He found it a bit embarrassing, being famous and recognized. He didn’t feel hip enough for London. Found it a bit hard to mingle with the music industry."

What about ABC? Did you care for them?

“Well, I came up with that phrase ‘the Lexicon of Love’. That was the headline I gave this live review Penman did of ABC. Ian and I still argue over who came up with it, actually. It was one of their first gigs, more like a PA, because they couldn’t play. ABC was really a Trevor Horn fantasy constructed in the studio.

“Did I care for ABC? Well, like one ‘cares’ for an extremely sweet candy. Stephen Singleton, back when he was doing Steve’s Paper, the fanzine – he was always going about ‘I’ve found some great shirts in a second hand store’. Or ‘I’ve found some nice gloves.’ It was a very fashion-mag, glam-oriented approach – into the visual aesthetic of punk, rather than the music. So, it didn’t surprise me that much, ABC, as an extension of that.”

“Talking of glam becoming punk, the great lost Sheffield group, who were quite important, was The Extras. I managed them for a short while. The singer John Lake was a sort of actor-poet singer – so the songs were a bit like someone busking ‘characters’ over tracks that the others had laid down. They were too late for glam, too early for the New Romantic - and out of step with punk. It was a highly design-conscious type of music - all the elements of glam were there, with a little bit of punk edge musically. The lyrics were very literary and poetic, plugged into that Burroughs, cut-up thing, but also that Bukowski thing. The keyboard player Robin Markin looked like Steve Harley; singer John looked like Bryan Ferry; the bassist Robin Allen, known at the time as Robin Banks, looked like Dylan, a mop of curly hair. And then they had this sax player Andy Quick, thin as a rake, who looked the spitting image of Rowland S. Howard from the Birthday Party. Bizarrely Andy departed for the antipodes at virtually the same time as Rowland S. Howard came over to England.  Andy was quite a funny character -  lovely, but he could flip over and become borderline dangerous. He nutted a window once somewhere and got all this glass in his forehead. Just having a sax in the group made it a Roxy Music, Andy Mackay thing.

“The Extras were very big in Sheffield, but the timing was just off. Two years earlier, or two years later, they could have made it. But they were the ones where everybody in Sheffield expected ‘Oh, they’re going to be famous soon’. They moved down to London, got a manager there, but it all fell apart.”


Over at Pantheon, a rapidly growing archive of Andy Gill's writing. Which can also be found in copious amounts at Rock's Back Pages.

  The first thing I read by Andy - and cut out and kept - I had never heard of Faust or even Krautrock, so the idea that it was a revolution that had been betrayed was a double intrigue


NME, April 11, 1981

Here's a tribute to Andy at The Independent, where he worked for many years.

Andy Gill can be seen and heard talking in this doc Made in Sheffield

Monday, June 10, 2019

the republic of rave (30 years on)

an article for the Italian newspaper La Repubblica on 30 years of rave

"Once Upon a Time in the Rave"
Robinson magazine, part of La Repubblica
02 Ottobre 2018

by Simon Reynolds

Thirty years ago, the U.K. was convulsed by the birth of arguably the last real youth movement. Rave was a proper subculture, with rituals and its own clothing style as well as music. Between the winter of 1987 and the summer of 1989, a new template for youth leisure emerged that would ultimately spread across the world: massive parties in which hordes of young people, clad in brightly colored clothes, danced all-night-long to electronic rhythms, united not just in the trance caused by the hypnotic beats but through a blissful communion generated by the drug MDMA. As rave proliferated, DJs were idolized, but the true star remained the dancing crowd itself. Raves were fiestas of anonymous collectivity, where individual self-consciousness dissolved in a tribal vibe.

The story of rave actually begins outside the U.K., when a coterie of London deejays traveled to Ibiza in 1987 and there experienced the synergy between MDMA (also known as Ecstasy, or E) and house music (a post-disco style spawned in Chicago’s gay clubs). Attempting to bring back the summery “Balearic” vibe to wintry London, the deejays Danny Rampling and Paul Oakenfold launched the clubs Shoom and Spectrum. Their atmosphere of relaxed intimacy broke with the preexisting clubland ethos of cool and posing.

Meanwhile, in the Northern city of Manchester, a similar energy coalesced at the Hacienda, a cavernous and somewhat desolate club started earlier in the Eighties by Factory Records. House’s music brisk rhythms plugged into a regional taste for uptempo black music, reactivating the fevered spirit of Northern Soul (a Seventies subculture based around cult-worshipped deejays, imported black American dance singles, and amphetamines). The “Madchester” scene spawned some of the first UK artists to take the imported sounds of Chicago house and Detroit techno and apply a unique British spin to them, such as A Guy Called Gerald and 808 State. There were also Manchester indie-rock groups who assimilated the new feeling, like Happy Mondays, who built a local following not just through their music but by selling pills of E direct to the audience. Their onstage frontline included a character known as Bez whose sole function was to swallow as much E as he could and do a bizarre twitchy dance. A holy fool of Ecstatic excess, Bez modelled a new dance culture archetype: the raver, whose uncool delirium superseded the club scene’s premium on elegance and composure.

“Rave” was actually an old word, dating back to the Sixties, when psychedelic bands like Pink Floyd threw All Night Raves.  The term was reactivated in 1988 as the logic of the new culture demanded ever larger events: the more people in attendance, the more that the MDMA-induced feeling of unity was amplified. In the autumn of  1988, promoters began to throw events in warehouses and abandoned factories in run-down inner-city zones like London’s East End, or the industrial areas of Northern cities like Bolton or Sheffield.  That logic of escalation then led in the summer of 1989 to even huger raves in the English countryside. Promoters took over farms (sometimes with the owner’s permission, but never notifying the authorities or following appropriate safety regulations) or they illegally occupied abandoned airfields. Long before mobile phones were widely available, rave organisers developed sophisticated methods of directing ravers to the secret locations, using phone messaging systems and “meet points” where cars of revelers drew up to receive further instructions.  The strategy was to assemble a large number of people at a location before the police found out, at which point they would be forced to accept the de facto rave for fear of causing a riot if they attempted to shut it down.

The huge convoys of cars that arrived on the M25 motorway that encircled London every weekend, the massive assemblies of bizarrely dressed youngsters shattering the quiet of the English countryside with futuristic electronic noise  - these disruptions could hardly fail to draw attention. And rave quickly became the most demonized British subculture since punk. Even without the drugs involved, you can see why both the political establishment and the general public might fear raves. Unruly gatherings of working class youths recalled the mass pickets during the Miner’s Strike of 1984-85. But rave stirred more inchoate fears. From the outside, raves did look like a pagan cult – kids flailing their limbs like voodoo worshippers. The word “rave” has connotations of madness, hysteria, or extreme forms of enthusiasm or fanaticism.  In the Sixties, “raver” had been a slang term for a sexually wild girl. Many of the newspaper scare stories about rave in 1988-89 concerned classic scenarios designed to alarm parents: tales of teenage girls having their tender minds blown on LSD, of orgies and creepy strangers preying on helpless young females.

Actually, if anything, MDMA instilled a sexless vibe.  Because MDMA’s effect encouraged tactile affection but suppressed sexual lust, the drug created an atmosphere in which women came into their own, free from the predations of the male gaze.  Rave clothing was baggy, its looseness ideal for dancing in hot sweaty environments, but also child-like, hiding the curves of sexual differentiation. When the word “love” appeared in house tracks, it wasn’t a reference to erotic coupling but a feeling of open-hearted trust towards the strangers with which you shared the dancefloor– a marvelous sensation of “collective intimacy”. That’s why, in a playful postmodern nod to the hippie Sixties, ravers talked about 1988 as the Second Summer of Love.   Later, in the early Nineties came a spate of rave tunes that sampled the melodies of children’s TV programmes. Rave as a culture involved a mass regression into innocence, a flight from adult responsibilities but also adult desires (remember, this was also the era of peak fear about AIDS).

Rarely directly political in its themes, rave’s collectivity offered an implicit rebuke to Margaret Thatcher’s worldview of competitive individualism, crystallized in her infamous statement that “there is no such thing as society” . Rave’s more fervent converts believed that the love drug Ecstasy could change the world. “They could settle wars with this…  imagine the world’s leaders on pills” is how The Streets’s Mike Skinner recalled the feeling at the time in his 2002 rave-flashback song “Weak Become Heroes”. Indie-rock converts to rave The Farm, from Liverpool, scored a 1990 hit with “All Together Now”, a song inspired by the 1914 Christmas truce between British and German troops.  And certainly in the early days of rave, the divisions between races, classes, and sexualities seemed to be dissolving in the woozy unity of the rave. Even the warring supporters of football teams fraternized in clubs and on the stadium terraces.

After the failure of police forces to thwart the big outdoor raves of 1989, Thatcher’s Conservative government passed the Entertainments (Increased Penalties) Act of 1990, legislation that threatened rave promoters with huge fines. For a while, the culture retreated back into the clubs. But then in 1991, the large-scale events resurged. Some were fully licensed and increasingly commercial, with spectacular lights and lazers and amusement-park side-shows. But there was also a new surge of illegal raves thrown by renegade outfits like Spiral Tribe, rough-and-ready parties without the amenities (like toilets or food) provided by the legal raves, but infused with a thrilling sense of adventure as you danced under the stars in remote areas of England.

As the music got harder and faster, matching the escalating drug consumption of the ravers, everything seemed to be hurtling towards some kind of catastrophic climax. It came with the May 1992 mega-rave at Castlemorton Common in the rural west of England. Urban ravers joined with hippie travelers, who for decades had traditionally migrated between summer festivals in their gaily painted buses and caravans and buses.  Forty thousand revelers attended Castlemorton during the rave’s six days of existence, during which it made the front covers of every newspaper in the country and led to questions in Parliament. Ultimately the Conservative government responded with the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994, which increased police powers to crush raves and harass travelers until their lifestyle became barely viable.

1992 may have been the peak of rave as a countercultural force, but the electronic dance culture only grew bigger as the Nineties unfolded. Musically it fragmented and mutated into a huge range of genres and micro-scenes. But its mainstream of house and trance-techno also became a well-organised and profitable leisure industry, with the rise of superclubs like Cream, Ministry of Sound and Gatecrasher: mini-corporations who raked in the money with merchandising, sponsorship deals, even club tours that took their legendary "vibe" around the county. Paralleling this professionalization was the emergence of a Premier League of super-deejays who travelled up and down the UK (and internationally too), earning thousands of pounds for each two-hour set and often playing several gigs per night at the weekend.

By the turn of the millennium, club culture had become a predictable and even controlling institution. It arguably still largely operates as a kind of social safety-valve, encouraging youth to live for the temporary utopia of the weekend rather than invest their idealism in a long-term collective project of political change.  Yet there are other legacies that still retain elements of the dissident potential of the original rave movement. The gay roots of electronic dance music have been reaffirmed by a new breed of queer and trans electronic artists like Arca, Elysia Crampton and Lotic. Then there’s the black British genre of grime, which emerged in the early 2000s from London’s illegal pirate radio culture (which earlier fostered the fiercest and strangest mutants of rave music, like jungle).

Demoting the status of the deejay, grime elevated the MC – hitherto a secondary figure in UK rave – and pushed his lyrics and vocal charisma to the fore. Initially apolitical and socially irresponsible in the gangsta rap style, grime’s political consciousness has matured and at the last UK election in June 2017 the genre threw its weight behind Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. The support of leading grime MCs like Stormzy and Novelist appears to have actually encouraged inner-city youth not just to register to vote but actually to turn up at the polling stations, resulting in Labour electoral gains and an unexpectedly close result that denied Prime Minister Theresa May an outright victory. In that sense, rave could be said to still be resisting Conservatism. At the Labour Party conference this week, Corbyn took to the stage to the tune of The Farm’s “All Together Now” and in his speech laid out a vision of reborn socialism that would effectively cancel the Thatcherite consensus of the last 35 years.