Wednesday, September 22, 2021

RIP RHK - Cabaret Voltaire + Sweet Exorcist + Xon writings

Cabaret Voltaire (and Factrix)

Village Voice, July 29, 2003

by Simon Reynolds

Thesis: Industrial music, in its original late-’70s incarnation, was the second flowering of an authentic psychedelia. (“Authentic” meaning non-revivalist, untainted by nostalgia). There was the same impulse to blow minds through multimedia sensory overload (the inevitable back-projected, cut-up movies behind every industrial performance—attempts at “total art” only too redolent of 1960s happenings and acid-tests). And industrial, like psychedelia, believed “no sound shalt go untreated”; both adulterated rock’s “naturalistic” recording conventions with FX, tape splices, and dirty electronic noise.

There were even direct links between the blissed freaks of the late ’60s and the autopsy aesthetes of the late ’70s: The precursors of pioneering London industrialists Throbbing Gristle were COUM Transmissions, who began in 1969 as an absurdist-primitivist cosmic rock group, evolved into a taboo-busting, tabloid-scandalizing performance art ensemble, then mutated into TG. There’s also something quite Grateful Dead-like about TG, from the cultishness they cultivated to their habit of excessive self-documentation. Earlier this year, the gargantuan box set 24 Hours made available again Throbbing Gristle’s 1979 cassette-only chest, which contained lo-fi live recordings of every single performance—all two dozen of ’em—TG had played up to that point.

Cabaret Voltaire, Sheffield Roxy Music fans who liked to dress sharp, probably despised straggly-haired, afghan-clad hippies. Still, the early Cabs lineup featured clarinet (shades of Jethro Tull!), while local fanzine Gunrubber compared their live sound to Hawkwind. The Cabs were huge fans of German kosmische rock (particularly Can) and loved Nuggets to the point of covering the Seeds’ punkadelic garage classic “No Escape.” The band’s Richard H. Kirk used to describe their shows as “like a bad trip,” and indeed “Possibility of a Bum Trip” is one of the unreleased goodies on Methodology ’74/’78.

The Cabs’ box is part of a mini-boom in archival industrial: Alongside the strictly-for-nutters 24 Hours and a double CD by San Francisco’s Factrix, long out-of-print records by 23 Skidoo and Biting Tongues have recently been reissued. Last year also saw a bonanza of vintage Cabs material: the classic albums Mix-Up, Voice of America, and Red Mecca; a terrific brand-new compilation, The Original Sound of Sheffield ’78/’82. Best Of; plus the reissue of an older, even better comp of the early Cabs singles, The Living Legends. And in May of next year, Throbbing Gristle will reunite to headline and host “Re-TG,” a two-day industrial-music festival taking place at an English vacation resort.

The earliest material on Methodology is almost 30 years old. And what’s initially surprising about all this bygone futurism is how great it sounds as guitar music, given industrial’s general rock-is-dead stance. Kirk started out contributing clarinet (harshly processed and highly effective, actually—the multitracked woodwinds on “Fuse Mountain” create a psychotic-bucolic vibe, like Popol Vuh jamming on a steel mill’s slag heap). As punk kicked in, the Cabs went rockier and Kirk swiftly joined post-punk’s pantheon of guitar innovators. You can hear Can’s Michael Karoli and reggae’s scratchy afterbeat in Kirk’s choppy rhythm playing, but what’s really distinctive is his trademark timbre: a sensuously brittle distortion like blistered metal, needling its way deep into your ear canal. Often fed through delay units, Kirk’s sustain-heavy lead lines arc and recede through soundscapes that are soused in reverb yet feel curiously dry, evoking the dead echoing chambers of nuclear bunkers and underground silos.

The box’s subtitle, Attic Tapes, refers to an actual claustrophobic space, the equipment-crammed upstairs loft where the trio—Kirk, Stephen Mallinder, and Chris Watson—would meet several times a week and “jam” with the tape recorder running. Methodology‘s three discs draw from hundreds of hours of raw music generated in the years before the Cabs’ first EP for Rough Trade. A few tracks are throwaway juvenilia, but it’s amazing how listenable even the sketchy stuff is. Creaky and homespun, early musique concrète stabs like “Dream Sequence Number Two Ethel’s Voice” have an alien-yet-quaint quality reminiscent of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (most famous for their work on the cult sci-fi series Dr. Who), while the rattling synthetic percussion and soiled sheets of abstract sound on “Henderson Reversed Piece Two” could give electronic composer Morton Subotnick a run for his money. By disc three, we’ve reached 1977/78 and the archetypal Cabs sound is taking shape: hissy rhythm-generator percussion, dank synth-slime, viscous coils of reverbed bass, a stalking hypno-groove midway between death disco and Eastern Bloc skank.

If there’s an element that dates poorly, it’s the occasional recitative, typically Burroughs-blighted or imaginatively overpowered by Atrocity Exhibition-era J.G. Ballard. Just check the fetid imagery of “Bed Time Stories”: “with dogs that are trained to sniff out corpses/eat my remains but leave my feet/I’ll hold a séance with Moroccan rapists/masturbating end over end.” (Mind you, it actually sounds quite effective in a flat, dry Yorkshire accent). There’s a similar liability effect with the prose-poetry daubed over Factrix tracks like “Empire of Passion”: “I want your sex for my display case . . . my swarms of sticky flies/gnaw away her ivory limbs.”

The Art(aud)-damaged Factrix hailed from San Francisco—the major outpost, outside Britain, for industrial music. (Which sort of nails the industrial-as-psychedelia-redux theory.) TG and the Cabs played to big crowds there. Collaborating with local kindred spirits Mark Pauline (of Survival Research Laboratories) and Monte Cazazza (the guy who inadvertently christened the genre with his “industrial music for industrial people” wisecrack), Factrix provided the soundtrack for several multimedia shockfests. The most infamous involved dead animals grotesquely roboticized by Pauline—like his patented “rabot” made out of metal, electrical wire, and rotting bunny. This sort of audience-confronting art/anti-art malarky can be traced through ’60s outfits like the Vienna Aktionists (pig’s blood, self-mutilation, pagan ritual), all the way back to Dada. Factrix’s Cole Palme echoed the famous flinch-inducing image in Un Chien Andalou when he talked of the group’s desire “to take a razor to the mind’s eye,” while Cabaret Voltaire nicked their name from the original Dadaist nightclub in WW I Zurich.

Like the Cabs, Factrix were big on the mistreatment of sound, deploying an arsenal of Eno-like reinventions such as amputated bass, “radioguitar,” and “glaxobass,” along with tape-loops, exotic percussion, and Multimoog. But as with Methodology, the surprise stand-out aspect of Factrix’s Artifact reissue is the most traditional element—Bond Bergland’s trippy guitar work, whose keening lead lines are definitely in the West Coast acid-rock tradition, tinged with the angularity of Roxy’s Phil Manzanera. On tracks like “Snuff Box (Alternate)” and “Obsession,” the guitar billows up in gaseous columns and harrowed arabesques that recall Ashra’s Manuel Göttsching—stripped of their New Age serenity. There are non-psych guitar thrills, too: the stumbling lunge-riff on “Theme From NOW!,” a distortion-pocked cover of the VU’s “Beginning to See the Light.” Elsewhere, Factrix’s more anti-/un-rock side produces creepy delights like “Phantom Pain,” with its pitter-pulse rhythms and poltergeist-like leakage from the etherworld, while the group’s merger of metal-bashing and ethnic instrumentation (migh-wiz, doumbek, saz . . . ) sometimes suggests an unlikely merger of SPK and the Third Ear Band.

Factrix started out influenced by TG and CV, but as they evolved they anticipated industrial’s next stage, when Psychic TV, Coil, and their ilk embarked on a full-blown magickal-mystery trip. Partial to the occasional mushroom, Factrix talked of wanting to jettison language and escape time—a nakedly psychedelic agenda that Artifact was originally going to honor by containing a sheet of acid-blotter, undipped but perforated using a vintage machine once owned by one of Haight-Ashbury’s “acid barons.” After Factrix disintegrated, Bergland formed Saqqara Dogs, an overtly transcendental trio centered around his skykissing solos. Cabaret Voltaire, meanwhile, got deeper into dance music (a journey you can follow on 2001’s box Conform to Deform ’82/’90. Archive;), embracing sequencers and ultimately making a sort of bleak house music—just in time for rave, that other authentic, non-retro reflowering of psychedelia.

Cabaret Voltaire

The Original Sound of Sheffield--The Best of the Virgin/EMI Years

Conform to Deform--The Virgin/EMI Years

Uncut, 2001

by Simon Reynolds

 It's hard to believe today, but back in the early Eighties the "New Pop" ideal of  mainstream entryism was so dominant, and the alternative (staying indie) so discredited, that even the leading lights of industrial music had a bash.  Clock DVA, SPK, and Throbbing Gristle (renamed Psychic TV) all formed alliances with major labels, glossing up their music  seemingly in hopes of getting on Top of the Pops.  What's most surprising in retrospect is not the group's eagerness to "sell out"  (hell, everybody needs to make some bread), but the major labels'  belief they could sell the stuff to Joe Punter.

 Invariably, the post-industrial popsters stiffed in the marketplace and, tails (or pierced dicks) between legs, they rejoined erstwhile comrades like Nurse With Wound and Coil in the margins.  Still, flouting received wisdom, it's not always true that compromise ruins a band's sound. Sometimes it an improvement: the radio-friendly Nirvana of Nevermind is just plain better than the Subpop stuff.  Even a failed attempt at mainstreaming can serve as a  timely escape for a band that's hit an aesthetic dead end. So while I'd still rate Cabaret Voltaire's first phase from "Nag Nag Nag" through Red Mecca to "Your Agent Man" as their definitive legacy, it's undeniable that by 1982 they'd taken that approach as far as they could. It was time for a change: a new arena, bigger horizons, a shifted sound.

On their first two post-Rough Trade albums, The Crackdown and  Microphonies, the Cabs are basically trying to do a New Order: marry postpunk's angst with the party sounds of electro and Latin Freestyle that ruled Manhattan clubs like the Funhouse and Danceteria. If they never pulled off a "Blue Monday" or "Confusion", they  got close with "Crackdown", "Just Fascination," and especially "Sensoria", which gave an ultramodern sheen--all chattering sequencers, pert chugging basslines, and robotic handclaps--to the classic Voltaire vibe of twitchy, under-surveillance tension. The result---Shannon for J.G. Ballard fans---was  only a few leftward steps from  Depeche Mode in their "political", Neubauten-infatuated mode. But  Stephen Mallinder's sultry vocals were always too subdued and moody for full pop impact. And melody was never the Cabs's strong suit.

By the time a dance culture based around largely instrumental music arrived,
  in the form of acid house, Cabaret Voltaire was running out of steam (understandably, after thirteen years and umpteen releases).   Remixes of  post-1988 Cabs tunes by dancefloor luminaries like A Guy Called Gerald and Rob Gordon show both how much the Cabs had in common with acid and bleep, but also how they needed assistance to really infiltrate that arena. Hooking up with Sheffield deejay Parrot as Sweet Exorcist, though, Richard Kirk did enjoy  the ravefloor impact that eluded the Cabs,  with early Warp releases like "Testone".  Avant-funk  finally had its day, as 'ardkore.

 The three-CD  Conform to Deform is flawed:  there's hardly anything from 1985's under-rated  The Covenant, The Sword, and the Arm of the Lord, and an entire disc dedicated to live versions seems an odd decision (although the Cabs could be a formidable and forbidding live experience). Some tracks haven't dated well:  "C.O.m.a" is all stop-start edits, Fairlight gimmicks, and other modish mid-Eighties techniques, but, unlike equally of-their-time efforts by Art of Noise and Mantronix, the effect is "period charmless."   The single-disc  The Original Sound of Sheffield, though, makes a strong case for the  Cabs's crossover era.  An essential companion/sequel to the first-phase Cabs singles compilation The Living Legends, this "greatest near-misses" tells the story of how one pioneering postpunk  outfit tried to adapt to the challenging climate of the 1980s.

Melody Maker, June 30 1990

Kirk-related blurbs from my guide to "The 20 Best Bleep Records Ever Made", FACT magazine, 2008



(Warp, 1989)


Sweet Exorcist were Richard H. Kirk from Cabaret Voltaire and Sheffield's DJ Parrot, and "Testone" is a classic example of bleep's sensual austerity: the barest components (growling sub-bass, a rhythmic web of Roland  909 klang and tuss, and a nagging sequence of five bleep-tones) are woven into something almost voluptuous. The title comes from the test tones built into synths and samplers, while the opening soundbite--"if everything's ready here on the dark side of the moon, play the five tones"--is sampled from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.


The Mood Set EP

(Network, 1991)

 Sweet Exorcist's Richard H. Kirk and Forgemaster Rob Gordon team up for this coldly compelling one-off. All whiplash percussion and spectral synths, "Dissonance" is the prize here. Its "ooh, ooh, techno city" hook, sampled from Cybotron (Juan Atkins' first group)  might be homage to Detroit. But it could equally be serving notice to the Belleville Three: watch out, Sheffield is the world capital of electronic music. Again. Because, actually, that Cybotron vocal sounds suspiciously like early Human League…



"Clonk's Coming" (off C.C.C.D)

(Warp, 1991)

Bleep at its most sophisticated, the final tune on this seven track maxi-EP (or is it mini-LP?) starts with a dizzy-making roundelay of dub-delayed bleeps, falls into a strange loping sashay of a groove, and blossoms into a fiesta of textured percussion, clanking bass, and densely clustered electronic tonalities.


And the very first thing I wrote about Cabaret Voltaire, from Melody Maker, July 26 1986

stray bloggage

Blissblog May 12, 2004

Richard h. kirk earlier/later (mute)

lives up to nick gutterbreaks praise, esp. the second disc of early days stuff. and worth the price just for the front cover --photo booth pic of kirk as a teenager looking like this sort of glam kid gone feral/reverted to hippie -- bowie meets peter the wild boy

Blissblog May 07, 2004

Very nice piece by Nick Gutterbreakz on the Richard H. Kirk Earlier/Later Unreleased Projects Anthology 74/89 (Grey Area Of Mute) CD which is out any day and which I'm panting to hear. I'm not quite as obsessive about Cabs-related output as Nick but not that far behind him. And weirdly it's quite a recent development. I really liked the Cabs at the time, had a fair few things by them, some vinyl, others taped off friends. And there were certain tracks like "Black Mask" and "Sluggin"/"Secret Agent Man" and swathes of Covenant that really stood out for me. But I wasn't like an obsessive fan by any means. But now, I dunno, through doing the book or something, in these last three years, I just really fell in love with the Cabs--as Sound and as Spirit-- to the point where I want all of it, the juvenilia and solo side project marginalia.... last year, if Methodology: Attic Tapes had been a new release it might have beaten out even Dizzee as my year's favorite listen (was amazed how little love that record got in the critpolls and blog roundups, praps most people didn't actually hear it?) ... yeah I really feel Nick's Kirkmania.... cos there's just something that imbues even the scraps and half-finished stuff... Something heroic about Cabaret Voltaire. Culture warrior bizniz innit.

For a cultural and material topography of postpunk Sheffield, check out this extensive interview I did with the late Andy Gill, the NME's Sheffield correspondent during this legendary time and friends with the Cabs and most of the other significant musicians in the town. 

Here's what Andy had to say about the Cabs and Richard H. Kirk:

“... Before the Cabs had a record out, they used to come into Virgin, where I worked.  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....

"Mal and Rich and Chris  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 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.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Cruel Poptimism

I am sometimes said to have coined the term "poptimism". At this point, I am used to being the Default Accused when it comes to coining genres and repeat-offender neologizing (quite a few things have been attributed to me that really weren't my responsibility). But "poptimism" and "poptimists" - these were terms I did use starting in the early 2000s, just before that whole debate really kicked off big time. They were intended as mildly insulting terms to describe a stance fashionable then that argued that all years were good years for music - there was no such thing as a bad year - the idea was to break with the manic-depressive bipolar idea of pop-rock history, in which there were peaks and troughs, and pivotal years (all these silly cyclical theories that years ending in '7, or whatever, were years of revolution). "Poptimism" was jibing with the idea of a steady-state flow of musical bounty, a level supply (some folks pointing to how if one area you were focused on went fallow, then you should just look elsewhere in the genrescape).  

Needless to say this sort of eclectic, diverse-portfolio, keep-calm-and-carry-on-consuming sensibility didn't really gel with the way my nervous system is wired. I also didn't feel it was fundamentally true - in any culture field, there's rhythms of acceleration and hyperactivity, followed by doldrums and dearths...  periods when it feels like everybody is firing on all cylinders and sparking off each other, but then the idea-flow reaches a temporary impasse, a flatness... I prefer that kind of feeling of, and feeling for, history - hence the mild jibe at what seemed to me a slightly forced optimism about pop, which often came out less like manic excitement and more like stolidity. 

Then the argument about poptimism versus rockism got more heated (there was an alternative formulation, rockism versus popism, rockists versus popists, which I kinda preferred, liking the echo of "papists"). The pejorative was cleverly seized upon and turned into a positive identity, a banner to wave in a battle (a battle, ironically, for an end to battling and side-taking). 

But as I say don't know if I was the first to use the term. It seems like a somewhat obvious formulation that someone else would have formulated (c.f. post-rock) much earlier and that lodged itself in my brain to reemerge and be repurposed

However if I did in fact come up with the word, I came up with it long, long before the early 2000s. 

The other day I stumbled on a use of it in a review from 1990, where the derogatory use of the P-word is referencing the Gladchester vibes of Northern neo-psych

Here's an appearance of poptimism from a year earlier!


"nostalgia for a period of poptimism you never even lived through yourself"

But that's not even the first time I used it - see below, which is 1987. 

Being used in reference to Swing Out Sister, who were sort of Late New Pop, makes me think that I  probably picked up the word during the early 1980s, it seems like a term Morley or Adrian Thrills or someone like that might have bandied about when bigging up Haircut 100. Here it just means a kind of lighthearted bounciness.

Thursday, September 2, 2021


 I did an interview December 2018 with Beatrice Finauro of Dry magazine (Milan) about trap / mumble rap - and why it was my favorite music of recent years. Here it is - resequenced a bit - and with a riff woven in from a separate interview with an Italian journalist that touched on the subject glancingly, and a few other stray thoughts.

Is trap a heresy, a new classic canon or both things at the same time?

On one hand, trap is just rap – the same old, same old. Gangsta rap, part 12. If you listen from a distance, you won’t hear anything you’ve not heard before. But immerse yourself in the music, and you hear a host of micro-innovations. Most of them are in the domain of vocals – the creative use of Auto-tune and other vocal processing, the emergence of ad libs as kind of antiphonal commentary on or reinforcement of the lead vocal, the blurring of rapping with singing so that you can’t distinguish between rhythmic speech and melodic trills. 

Listen to the almost choral weave of voices in Migos - the main rap, the ad libs (often shouted or whooped or gasped nonverbal eruptions of pure jouissance), and then the rippling hyper-Autotuned backing vocals - again, wordless moans of ecstasy that sometimes resemble psalms or monastic chants. This is a new thing in music. And just as striking and interesting, it's a new kind of melting, woozy subjectivity for hip hop masculinity - almost effete at times. 

This new subjectivity and the vocal modes that have emerged alongside it seem to have been produced by changing drug use patterns  - the different vibes  generated by drugs like Xanax and Percocet. Although purple drank has been a southern  hop hop staple for a long while. But these numbing anxiety killers and pain killers have turned rap of the Migos, Playboi Carti, Lil Uzi Vert, Rich the Kid, Travis Scott type into a kind of ambient music - or even Ambien Music.  It exists in a zone between faded and fey. 

Texturally the floaty, wafting, twinkly IDM-ish sounds in the production make trap one of the last remaining bastions of minimalism in modern music, which otherwise tends towards maxed out digitalism. Trap has digimax's hyper-real contoured gloss, but in combination with minimalism - so you get this killer combination of spare and sumptuous. Trap tunes often consist of just a few vaporous sounds looped and these highly repetitive vocal hooks, and often there are a rather small total number of words in the entire lyric. It's a break with the whole tradition of MC lyricism, it's much more about texture and mood, and these sing-songy, rippling hooks. This is music that invites you to trance out, to listen in a semi-attentive stupor. Tracks ooze out of the car speakers to cloud the vehicle's interior - and especially if you're driving at night, it's like you're gliding along inside this futuristic glowing capsule. 

Adam Harper defined the characteristics of Hi-Tech aesthetics Vs Indie aesthetics. I think some of the features of Hi-tech, such as the harsh vision of the future, being decadent, excessive and aggressive, and originally linked by Harper to artists such as James Ferraro, Laurel Halo and Oneohtrix Point Never, can be also attributed to the trap genre. On the other hand, we have the supposedly warm, benign, archaic and, I’d say, lifeless realm of Indie to which the trap is opposed. In your opinion, which are the main trap’s features and where does trap lie in the contemporary ecosystem?

The supposedly subversive or parodic elements of vaporwave or hi-tech / hi-def – to me they pale next to the reality of what is streaming out of the mainstream airwaves. Which is to say the hyper-reality of it -  a lifestyle that is fantastical, psychotic... What could be more insane or morbid than the subjectivity in a Drake record or a Kanye song? The black Rap n B mainstream is further out sonically and attitudinally than anything the white Internet-Bohemia has come up with. Rap and R&B, Travis Scott, the Weeknd, Cardi B, Migos: is already the Simulacrum, is already decadence. I call it Weimar n B.

Trap spans from the original formula, such as the one of Gucci Mane, T.I, Young Jeezy, to the Ebenezer’s one, influenced by R&B and Gospel, to London’s Drill and so on… And each country has its own version. Is there a common ground, rule or standards that is cross to the different types of trap?

There are certain beat patterns that recur (yet also a surprising diversity of grooves and feels). You can connect trap back to early 2000s sounds like crunk and New Orleans bounce – the idea of the Dirty South – to labels like Cash Money. 

I suppose if there are two things that define all 21st Century hip hop is that it doesn’t use samples very often and it breaks with the looped breakbeat approach of classic East Coast Hip Hop. The beats are programmed and relate to a longstanding Southern U.S Hip Hop tradition that was rooted in drum machines and 80s Electro. Trap is part of that, as was the related L.A. sound of Ratchet as pioneered by DJ Mustard. But in a larger sense it’s all trap, it’s all gangsta rap, it’s all rap. There’s an absolute continuity, a changing same to quote Amiri Baraka.

Why does trap have such an influence on kids?

Kids want something that feels now and that belongs to them, and trap is the most convincing and intoxicating contender for that role. Most other forms of youth music are static or overly shadowed with heritage and history.

The other thing is that trap is one of the few music around that drips with a disruptive and illicit jouissance. Trap – especially Migos and Young Thug, but all of it – is ecstatic. The performers seems entranced by themselves, in a swirl of ecstasy and glory. Think of the feeling in Rae Sremmurd ‘Black Beatles’ . The fact that their trope for that feeling of excess, triumph and abandon is rock stardom tells you something. This is supplying what kids got from the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin: a fantasy of a life without constraints.


Anonymous Luke said...
It's unfortunate that your point about mumble rap representing a new subjectivity for hip hop masculinity didn't make it into the published interview as it is one of the things that I find most interesting about mumble rap too. Especially when it is contrasted with the typical portrayal of hip hop masculinity which still found a place in the published piece.

Regarding the dichotomy between 'conscious' hip hop and mumble rap, it is a necessary distinction, but i like to think of mumble rap as 'unconscious' hip hop not because it is anti-woke or anti-progressive, but in the psychoanalytic sense. If conscious hip hop is superego music, and the majority of other hip hop ego music, mumble rap is id music. From all the non-verbal sounds, the adlibs, the mumbling and so on, to those problematic lyrics which often come across as more the product of free association than conscious boasting.

SR replies 
I like the idea about it being 'unconscious' rap, stream of unconsciousness, letting fantasy and the id come out to play

The ecstastic blurry moans and gurgles and the Tourettic ad libs, they seem to release psycholibidinal energy in spurts and spasms, it's very much some Kristeva semiotic material being let loose, strings and blobs of jouissance

Reminds me of Tim Buckley's "Starsailor" the track

The babyvoice Playboi Carti just makes the regressive tendency manifest...

Thursday, August 26, 2021

the richness and range of reggae

Big Youth

Natty Universal Dread

Various Artists

A Jamaican Story

Uncut, May 2001

by Simon Reynolds

In Jamaica, the DJ isn't the guy who spins the records (that's the selector), it's the bloke who chats over the music. As misnomers go, it's a good one, though, since DJ is short for disc jockey, and the whole art of reggae deejaying is vocally riding the riddim – whether it's a loping nag as with the mellow skank of Seventies reggae, or a bucking bronco as with digital dancehall.

Alongside U Roy, Big Youth was one of the first and greatest roots-era DJs, his smoky voice unleashing a gentle torrent of prophecy and prattle: "one love" beseechings, get-up-stand-up exhortations, Psalm-like chanting, but also boasts, children's rhymes, laughter, shrieks and grunts. As a less musically compromised natty dread soul-Jah than Bob Marley, Big Youth was a potent icon of radical chic for white youth during the punky-reggae era; John Lydon was a fan, and even persuaded Virgin to sign the DJ for their Front Line reggae imprint.

Songs like 'Is Dread In A Babylon' and 'Every N***** Is A Star' capture the militancy of a period when Jamaica was feeling the cultural tug of post-colonial Africa while remaining geopolitically very much within the American sphere of influence/interference. Perhaps that's one reason Big Youth forged connections with the US's own black "enemy within", interpolating lyrics from The Last Poets into "Jim Screechy".

Worth acquiring just for the glorious rhythm tracks over which Big Youth toasts, Natty Universal Dread is Blood & Fire's best since their Heart Of The Congos reissue, and, typically for the label, this three-CD set is a beautifully designed fetish object.

Trojan's A Jamaican Story is a curious looking thing, by comparison. Culled from this veteran label's formidable archives, its cardboard chest contains 10 smaller boxes, shiny packets that look like bars of Ritter chocolate. Each of these three-CD micro-boxes is devoted to one era or aspect of reggae history: ska, rocksteady, lovers, DJ et al.

Unlike the Big Youth set's exhaustive annotations and accompanying essay, there's minimal information provided, just a rudimentary sketch of the specific genres. You don't even get dates of recording/release, or the identity of the producer and the engineer who did the mix (absolutely crucial information with dub). Truthfully, it's hard to know who A Jamaican Story is targeted at. Reggae fiends will want Blood & Fire-style data overkill (plus those vintage photo overlays and deliberately faded-looking graphics that emphasise the sense of bygone times), while neophytes are hardly going to shell out a few hundred quid for this 30-CD colossus.

All that said, it's impossible to quibble with the quality of music here: Story is a treasure chest. Its span stretches from Desmond Dekker to Scientist, a sonic journey from ska's two-dimensional cartoon jerkiness to dub's haze-infused chambers of deep space. Story also serves to remind just how much Jamaican pop falls outside the rudeboy/rootsman dialectic-there's goofy instrumentals, novelty songs, topical social comment, pure dance music, and love song after gorgeous love song.

What's faintly terrifying, though, is that, as crazily copious and encompassing as it is, A Jamaican Story still warrants that indefinite article: 500 tracks long, it only skims the surface of reggae's ocean of sound.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

New Wave

10 Album tour through New Wave

(for Radio Raheem - Milan, Italy)

by Simon Reynolds

 THE B-52’S – The B-52’s  (1979)

Especially after their international smash “Love Shack”, it can be hard to look past this Athens, Georgia band’s retro-kitsch image and hear how tough and stark their sound was at the start. The sinewy rhythms and unyielding riffs find the exact mid-point between Booker T & the MGs and Gang of Four. This monochrome minimalism is overlaid with the garish Americana of the lyrics and image, which inhabit the same ‘50s/60s world of B-movies and beehive hairdos as John Waters’s films. All this might still be just campy fun if not for the soul-power blast of Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson, whose vocals reach a scary intensity on songs like “52 Girls,” “Lava,” and “Dance This Mess Around”.

 XTC - Drums and Wires (1979)

New Wave lyricists tended to approach social comment in a methodical manner, as if checking off issues and themes on a list. In the years after punk there was also a widely felt imperative to write songs about anything but love (see Talking Heads album title More Songs About Buildings and Food). Which perhaps explains how XTC came up with “Roads Girdle The Globe” and “Helicopter”. But the approach works wonderfully on “Making Plans For Nigel”, an unsettling song about parents who’ve mapped out their son’s entire future, wrapped in music that reinvents psychedelia rather than repeating it. Elsewhere XTC’s whooping vocals and herky-jerky rhythms resemble a clockwork toy wound-up too tight and  careening dementedly around the room.


CHRISMA – Chinese Restaurant (1977)

Because New Wave put further distance between rock and its American roots, it seemed to open up possibilities for European musicians, who quickly embraced the  blues-less unswinging sound and the primary-color, plastic-look aesthetic of the clothes and record design. On their debut, Milan’s Chrisma sound like their heads have been turned around by Bowie & Iggy’s own Euro moves of earlier in  ‘77.  “Black Silk Stocking” recalls the moody monotony of “Nightclubbing” off The Idiot, while the drooping synths of “Lycee” could fit nicely with the twilight instrumentals on Low’s side 2. But the killer tune here is “C-Rock”. Its controlled throb and silvery glisten induces a Neu!-like trance (and the German group get a namecheck in  closing number “Thank You”).



Like Graham Parker and The Jam, Costello’s early sound is rooted in Sixties R&B and British beat groups, but cranked up on speed and spite and thus reflecting the tension and bleakness of a far less hopeful decade.  Where other New Wavers declared both their entanglement with history and their desire to start a new era by doing punked-up covers of classic rock songs, Costello attacks the past by sarcastic quoting of lyrics and recycling riffs in mangled or inverted form. It works as pop – hooks leap out, you can dance - even as the spirit is anti-pop, perhaps anti-everything. For the Attractions, playing this music must have felt as uptight and constricting as the skinny ties around their throats when posing for album cover shots.


THE STRANGLERS – Black and White (1978)

The Stranglers’s classic first three albums, all released within just over a year of each other,  work in the archetypal New Wave mode: antagonistic rewriting of the Sixties. In their case, though, there’s one specific ancestor: The Doors. Keyboardist Dave Greenfield froths over into extended solos of rippling arpeggiation just like Ray Manzarek. You can hear flickers of Robbie Krieger in Hugh Cornwell’s more lyrical guitar moments. And the overall vision is dark and brooding in the Jim Morrison style, especially on this third album with macabre tunes like “Death and Night and Blood”. They even go in for Doors-style jerky time-signatures, as with the waltz rhythm of the poignant and eerie “Outside Tokyo”.


THE WAITRESSES – Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful? (1981)

When they weren’t disguising and disfiguring their Sixties influences, New Wavers sometimes looked to contemporary club sounds, layering barbed or ironic lyrics over dance grooves. Hailing originally from Akron, Ohio --the industrial town that spawned Devo -  The Waitresses found a home in New York’s “mutant disco” scene around ZE Records. If Patty Donahue’s sardonic vocals suggest a gawky Blondie, the sax-powered funk and droll words recalls New Wave hitmakers Ian Dury & the Blockheads.  The lurching groove and taunting melody of “I Know What Boys Like” is the killer on Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful?. Later came bittersweet single “Christmas Wrapping” and the group’s theme for Square Pegs, a cult show about high-school misfits, i.e. New Wave’s demographic of geeks and freaks.

LENE LOVICH – Stateless (1978)

One New Wave staple was the oddball female singer with a piercingly shrill voice and a kooky image: see Nina Hagen and Dale Bozzio of Missing Persons. Of partly Serbian descent, Lovich’s operatic warble and Gothic silent-movie-star appearance coincided with the era’s demand for weirdos (see also Devo, whose “Be Stiff” she covers here). The shtick can get wearing, but on the wonderful “Lucky Number”, a huge 1979 hit, Lovich’s sing-song melody rides the mighty rhythmic chassis of a propulsive groove. Elsewhere, the almost Cossack-like “Sleeping Beauty” recalls Sparks, glam-era hitmakers whose ultra-white sound anticipated New Wave.

SKIDS -  Scared to Dance (1979)

Imagine if rock’n’roll hadn’t been born in America’s Deep South but in the Scottish highlands. That’s the sound of Skids -  cold and clear like winter wind coming off the moors. The band’s stomping rhythms, slashing guitar riffs and shouted choruses create a martial feel mirrored in song titles like “Into the Valley”, “Hope and Glory”, and “Melancholy Soldiers”.   Equally influenced by the clean but florid lead playing of Be Bop Deluxe’s Bill Nelson and the skirling drone of the bagpipe, guitarist Stuart Adamson took this rousing “adventures for boys” sound into his successor group Big Country, who sparred alongside Celtic cousins U2 and Simple Minds in the Eighties genre known as “Big Music”.

MARTHA AND THE MUFFINS – Metro Music (1980)

This Canadian art-school group should have been called Marthas and the Muffins, because they contained two:  Martha Johnson and Martha Ladly, both of whom sang and played keyboards. Like The Members with their New Wave anthem “The Sound of the Suburbs”, the Muffins pinpointed their spiritual habitat in “Suburban Dreams”. But the ennui and occasional ecstasy of life on the outskirts of the action was never captured better than on “Echo Beach”, the hit single off their debut Metro Music. Gliding keyboards and rasping saxophone frame Johnson’s suave croon as she plays the workaday drone (“my job is very boring I’m an office clerk”) who fantasies about escaping to an imaginary seaside idyll.

 SUBURBAN LAWNS – Suburban Lawns  (1981)

From Long Beach, California, Suburban Lawns had the ultimate New Wave name. Lyrically, their prime subject is the post-WW2 landscape of American banality, that same prefab plastic world satirized in films from The Graduate to Edward Scissorhands. In “Flying Saucer Attack” the citizens of the fast-food nation don’t mind being abducted by aliens so long as “we’re back for work on Monday”. “Mom and Dad and God” scorns the parents’ “mindless devotion to lack of emotion”. As with so much New Wave, you sense that these CalArts students can really play: it’s the friction of their ability against punk taboo’s on flashy musicianship that creates the music’s delicious nervous tension. “Janitor” is the jewel: Su Tissue sings not like a rock’n’roller but a librarian with a very peculiar imagination.

Friday, August 6, 2021

Two Fingas interviewed on the emergence of jungle (in celebration of Repeater Books republication of Junglist)

JUNGLE EMERGES: A Flashback to 1993

director's cut of a piece written six years later, Spin, 1999

by Simon Reynolds

Years before Roni Size and LTJ Bukem became international hipster favorites, jungle was banished from the media limelight. To identify yourself as a "junglist" in 1993 meant you belonged to an outcast tribe, a scene feared by most London clubbers as a sinister underworld populated by speed-freaks and baby-gangstas. Born out of rave's Ecstasy-fuelled fervor, the music had mutated, under the influence of bad drugs and the desperation of the recession-wracked early Nineties, until it was too hard, too dark, and too black for most people to handle.

The emergence of jungle has everything to do with drugs. Its frantic breakbeat rhythms evolved because ravers buzzing on too many E pills and amphetamine wraps craved beats as hectic and hyper as their own overdriven metabolisms. The music's bad-trippy aura and disorientating FX simultaneously reflected and exacerbated the paranoia induced by long-term stimulant abuse. 1993 was the year of "darkside", a crucial transitional phase between hardcore rave's hands-in-the-air euphoria and jungle's guns-in-the-air menace.

"The production played tricks on your mind, " enthuses Two Fingas, co-author of the pulp novel Junglist, talking about twilight-zone jungle classics like Boogie Time Tribe's "Dark Stranger" and Origin Unknown's "Valley of the Shadows". "Darkside freaked out a lot of people, especially those still in the Ecstasy haze--because on E there's no distance between you and the music. Darkside was just evil, evil music--and that was good. Cos it got rid of the lightweights, to be honest".

One of the first all-jungle-DJs raves, Jungle Fever, went out of its way to scare off fans of happy rave and fluffy house, theming the venue with tombstones, coffins, and Gothic statuary. But the classic darkside moment in jungle mythology is an infamous inccident at a rave called Telepathy, where DJ Rap unwittingly played 4 Hero's "Mr. Kirk's Nightmare"---a song in which a father is informed about his son's fatal overdose--just seconds after a boy was knifed on the dancefloor.

Stabbings and muggings, friction and tension.... Many blamed the shift from rave's smiley-face glee to jungle's skrewface scowl on another drug: crack. After all, who else but rock-smoking fiends could possibly enjoy such insanely frenetic beats? Joe Wieczorek, owner of the hardcore rave club Labrynth, claims "the early dark jungle, you might as well call it crack music. There's nothing worse for a raver than being somewhere he doesn't feel safe, and if there's fifty rock-heads in the club, it's going to frighten the life out of you." But although there was a spate of anti-crack tunes like DJ Ron's "Crackman On the Line" in 1993, others reject the linking of jungle and crack as a crypto-racist slur.

If any substance has a claim to be the true junglist's drug, it's marijuana-- especially the hydroponically-grown ultra-strong weed known as skunk. An archetypal tableau in any jungle club is a group of boys stood in a huddle "building and burning." One youth clasps his hands together, fingers interlocked, and upturns the palms to form a flat surface for his friend to build a massive spliff on; in a crowded, jostling club, it's the only way to roll. Another friend leans close to block off the sight-lines of any security guard in the vicinity. "Burning"... well, that's self-explanatory. Marijuana is the reason jungle basslines started to run at reggae tempo, exactly half the speed of the accelerated breakbeats, thereby allowing dancers to skank rather than rave. And marijuana is why the nudge-nudge wink-wink references to E in tracks were gradually replaced by roots reggae samples exalting ganja, sensimilla and herb.

Jungle wouldn't exist without two black musics that also worship sub-bass and the chronic that intensifies the low-end boom: hip hop and reggae. The life arc of DJ Hype, founder of the labels Ganja and True Playaz, is typical. A white working class boy from the desolate East London borough of Hackney, Hype spent the Eighties playing on a reggae sound-system and competing in hip hop cut'n'mix contests. By 1990, he was spinning house on pirate station Fantasy FM and recording brutal Euro-techno anthems as The Scientist. Jungle is the only-in-London amalgam of all these different imported sounds, and crucially it was a collective invention. " I always say, we are the foundation, because there's no one record, no single DJ, no specific club, where jungle started," Hype declares.

If you wanted to pinpoint the emergence of jungle, though, one contender is the moment at the end of 1992 when tracks like Bodysnatch's "Just 4 U London" and Code 071's "London Sumting" hit the pirate radio airwaves. "That it's-a-London-thing stance, I always took as this-is-a-black-thing, y'know," says Two Fingas. "London has the biggest black population in Britain". It was black fashion that shaped jungle's style spectrum, which ranged from hip hop-influenced "ruffneck soldier" minimalism (puffy MA1 and MA2 flight-jackets, namebrand sneakers, baggy pants) to dancehall-reggae derived ghetto fabulous flashiness. At the ragga-dominated raves like Sunday Roast and Desert Storm, the 80 percent black British crowd "larged it" VIP style--the men flaunting Versace and Moschino, gold sovereign rings and bottles of champagne; the women flexin' their abdomens and winin' their waists in their skin-tight "batty rider" shorts, micro-skirts, bustiers, and thigh-high boots.

As well as changing the way people moved on the dancefloor, the ragga influence was decisive in another area that sealed jungle's break with house and techno: the crucial role of the MC. "Girls sticking their asses in the air and a MC really working the crowd, getting them to hold their lighters up and blow their horns to get the DJ to rewind the track." is how Lee Billingham, aka DJ Bo!ne, recalls his first encounter with jungle at the South London club Lazerdrome. 

"I loved the whole 'selector! wheel-and-come-again!' , rewind thing," says Two Fingas, another Lazerdrome regular. The democratic way in which the audience controlled the DJ via the MC, he argues, is part of jungle's renegade blackness--its participatory, call-and-response ethos. "As the jungle MCs like GQ, Det, 5-0 and Moose took on the Jamaican patois thing, they became more than crowd motivators, they were vocalizing what the massive was feeling, connecting you with the music more intensely, and adding a lyrical element to this largely instrumental music. There's an ephemeral, magical quality to the MC chants--especially on the pirate radio stations, they'd just go off on one, creating stuff on the fly."

It's the pirate radio stations that are the real heroes of jungle's story--they kept the vibe alive in the scene's early, pre-breakthrough phase. London has dozens of these illegal radio collectives, gangstas of the airwaves who broadcast from the top of towering apartment blocks and engage in a constant, quasi-military struggle to survive not just governmental suppression but the skullduggery of rival stations who'll gladly steal their pirate brethren's transmitters. Legend has it that one outfit, Rush FM, turned the derelict upper floors of an East London block into a fortress so impregnable that the DJ's had to rappel up the side of the building to reach the studio. They sealed the stairwell entrance with concrete, hollow metal tubes pumped with ammonia gas, and a wire connected to the electrical supply. When local government officials attempted to drill through the barricade, they hit the live wire and an electric spark ignited the gas, exploding the concrete and showering the workmen with shrapnel.

Yet for all its militancy and moodiness, jungle seethed with "a fierce, fierce joy", as convert Bjork put it. The speed of the music was crucial, as if you could somehow ride its future-rush, achieve escape velocity, and smash through to a brighter tomorrow.

"The breakbeats were so fast and chopped up, your body wanted to be pulled in twenty different directions at once," recalls DJ Bo!ne of his baptismal experience at Lazerdome. "Me and my mates just looked at each other, jaws dropped, and were, like, 'This is mental!!!!"."

Says Two Fingas: "Anyone can be a junglist, but for me, it's part of having a black spirit. Jungle is about getting sweaty and having a religious experience on the dancefloor. It can feel like the Holy Spirit is moving through you."

Buy Junglist here (US) and here (UK)

More information here and Another Mag's interview with co-author James T. Kirk here  

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Daft Punk

 "Digital Love"

(from NPR Music farewell to Daft Punk special, 2021)

My golden Daft Punk memory is not witnessing their 1996 U.S. debut at a muddy Wisconsin rave, or meeting the duo at their home-from-home in the Hollywood Hills in 2013. It's dancing to "Digital Love" with my two-year-old son in 2001, the year Discovery came out. The childhood link – if not my own, then my kid's – cuts to the core of Daft Punk. As hinted by the title itself, Discovery felt like a flashback to pop's primal scene: those first encounters, ears cupped to a transistor radio or eyes glued to the TV screen, with otherworldly transmissions from Planet Pop. A magical recovery of that pre-teen openness to everything, before you've learned the rules of cool and uncool.

On Discovery, Daft Punk took their existing filter-disco sound, as pioneered on tracks like "Musique," and blended in a palette of textures and tones sourced in 1970s radio rock at its most overground, overproduced and over-lit. This was the yacht-rock move, almost a decade ahead of chillwave or groups like Haim. But in Daft Punk's case, the balance of irony and awe leans far more to the latter. There's a transcendent artificiality to "Digital Love" especially, a splendor of sound at once camp and sublime. The hazy glaze of the filter effect on the twirling main riff is like plastic if it could rust. At the breakdown, Supertramp's keyboard sound is duplicated with eerie exactness (or not so eerie exactness, given that Daft Punk used the exact same Wurlitzer piano as the English soft rock group). Then there's the ridiculous majesty of that Van Halen-style guitar solo, frothing and bubbling over like a geyser of hot-pink liquid latex. Yet, within all the delicious knowing allusions, the heart of "Digital Love" aches with unrequited longing: it's a rewrite of "Jump" tilted to the tentative, whose last words implore "why don't you play the game?"

"Digital Love" is such an epic distillation of What Daft Punk Is All About that it's still slightly bemusing to remember it was the third single off Discovery and only a modest hit. Admittedly, on the album "Digital Love" jostles with rival delights: lead single "One More Time," with its astonishingly protracted minute-and-half breakdown during which the beat absconds leaving just Romanthony's Auto-Tune-crackling ecstasy; the baroque excess of "Aerodynamic"; frantic electro-funk bangers "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" and "Crescendolls"; the shimmering 10cc homage "Nightvision" and bittersweet ballad "Something About Us"; "Veridis Quo", which sounds like the credits theme for a French movie about a lonely girl who's just moved to Paris.

Still, "Digital Love" is The One as far as I'm concerned: a wondrous fusion of disco, AOR, glam metal and New Wave (the choppy guitar-riff breakdown practically forces you to dance in jumpy formation like you're in a Toni Basil video). The actual promo for "Digital Love", like its precursor singles, was hewn from Daft Punk's anime movie Interstella 5555, a project that captured an abiding truth about pop as well as forecasting its emerging destiny in the 21st century: pop's pulpy essence has far more to do with cartoons, comics and video games than literature or the other high arts.

Of course, in a move that seems in hindsight both logical and fatal, Daft Punk fell out of "digital love." They abandoned sampling and embarked upon the back-to-analogue quest of Random Access Memories: an attempt to turn back time and resurrect the pop monoculture of the late '70s and early '80s, ruled by performers and producers like Chic, Giorgio Moroder and Michael Jackson. RAM was a conceptual and commercial triumph, but ultimately a dead end – where on Earth could the duo go next? How could they hope to top "Get Lucky" being on the radio each and every hour for an entire year, the six Grammys and the awards ceremony jam session with Stevie Wonder and Nile Rodgers? As a commentary on our atemporal and digitally-overdriven epoch, RAM provided a heaping portion of food-for-thought. But since it came out, I've never once felt the urge to play the record. Whereas "Digital Love" and Discovery are perennial, always there when I need an intravenous jolt of insta-joy. Happy daze. 

Saturday, July 24, 2021

lost in Muzik

 a couple of old reviews of mine Michelangelo Matos found trawling through the back pages of Muzik, IPC Media's attempt to rival Mixmag and DJ

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Pale Ire - Morrissey, Autobiography



Bookforum, February / March 2014

by Simon Reynolds

In “Pretty Girls Make Graves,” off the Smiths’ 1983 self-titled debut album, Morrissey bemoans the advances of a voracious woman: “But she’s too rough, and I’m too delicate.” That’s how the world has tended to see the singer: the prince of mope rock, someone who speaks for life’s wilting wallflowers, the easily bruised and eternally unrequited. From his fey, sighing vocals, often spiraling up into a genderless falsetto, to lyrics that express the erotic-ascetic yearnings of someone with “no understanding of himself as flesh,” most of Morrissey’s best songs fit this image of bookish, bedroom-cloistered sensitivity.

Yet something odd becomes apparent as you make your way through Autobiography, the fifty-four-year-old singer’s best-selling new memoir. Yes, Morrissey sings on behalf of those brutalized by the world and its bullies. But he also admires and aspires to a certain sort of brutish ruthlessness. There’s a consistent attraction to masculine hardness running through his life and work, starting perhaps with Morrissey’s handy-with-his-fists father and blossoming later with songs that reveal a fascination with criminals, boxers, hooligans, and others who both dish out and take punishment. Musically, too, it becomes apparent that for all the yearning tenderness and fragile shimmer-jangle of songs like “Reel Around the Fountain,” and “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” the Smiths were a punk band as far as Morrissey’s concerned: an aggressive pushback against the world that had overlooked and mocked him, an act of vengeance.

He describes the Smiths in militaristic language seemingly more suited to the Stooges (“bomb-burst drumming, explosive chords, combative basslines”) and complains that their underproduced debut album should have been “a dangerous blow from the buckle-belt end of a belt” but ended up “a peck on the cheek.” Morrissey’s current band, likewise, is compared to a gangster clan of “blood-bubbas” and “an unstoppable destroyer.” Affix “a green beret” to bassist Solomon Lee Walker, and he’d be “ready to clean up North Korea within an hour,” Morrissey writes.

His pop ambitions were sparked by glam, and fanned to a flame by punk. As he explains here, he yearned to front a band that fused brains and brawn: “refinement and logic bursting from a cone of manful blast.” But even the purely verbal side of Morrissey’s art—which includes not just lyrics but his scintillating interviews and now this gripping, exasperating book—has a violent aspect. What he exalts in others, and excels at himself, is rapier wit: the cutting quip, the painfully incisive and often physically insulting assessment. This he learned from the masters: Oscar Wilde, obviously, but also Julie Burchill, whose cruelly beautiful writing for the punk-era New Musical Express he revered as a youth. That debt is repaid here with a savage portrait, seemingly in retaliation for an indiscretion about Morrissey’s love life in a 1994 profile by Burchill that was otherwise uncharacteristically gushing (the idol having herself become a fan).

Following Wilde and the dandy tradition, Morrissey’s ideal is the hard-edged personality, standing out and apart from the mediocre mass. There is a war being waged, between the bored and the boring. As Morrissey puts it: “the monotonous in life must be protected at all costs. But protected from what? From you and I.” The dandy self is both a monstrous eruption of sheer freakish difference, innately against nature and against the grain, and also a persona that’s been zealously cultivated and shaped to goad the small minded.

Growing up in a dilapidated working-class neighborhood of Manchester during the ’60s and ’70s, Morrissey fashioned himself out of fragments of poets (Stevie Smith, Auden, Housman), dramatists (Shelagh Delaney), and actors (James Dean). He was also fascinated by certain characters in forgotten TV shows and movies: the highly strung, waspishly witty Dr. Zachary Smith in Lost in Space; the stylish spy Jason King; Mr. Cringle, from the obscure British comedy I’m a Stranger, who deploys his “weapon of words” against the dowdy dullards surrounding him. Morrissey gleaned other important clues, including Warholism, from Films and Filming, a covertly gay magazine that passed as a cineast periodical.

Most of all, though, Morrissey learned from pop stars. Glam rock gripped his imagination through its combination of effeminacy and toughness. He worships the New York Dolls, streetwise thugs in women’s clothing, describing “Jerry Nolan on the front of the Dolls’ debut album” as “the first woman I ever fall in love with.” He chill-thrills to the heartless indifference of Lou Reed, and the “deadly frost” of Nico’s voice. Glam successor Siouxsie Sioux, he notes admiringly, “doesn’t mind if she poisons the world,” even as he gives an unflattering account of their brief collaboration in 1993.

Yet as much as Morrissey has been driven by the desire for stardom and by an inborn superiority complex, he has also, in songs and public statements, consistently stood up for the downtrodden masses. The essential and irresolvable contradiction at the heart of Morrissey’s art is this clash between his belief in himself as extraordinary and destined for some sort of peculiar greatness, and his commitment to social realism and his working-class roots. Describing the Smiths’ record sleeves, a series of photographs he carefully selected, Morrissey writes of his idea “to take images that were the opposite of glamour and to pump enough heart and desire into them to show ordinariness as an instrument of power—or, possibly, glamour.” But is it really possible to be both a dandy and loyal to the common people? That was the impossible balancing act Morrissey tried to pull off. On the one hand, he deliberately picked a mundane band name with the Smiths, preached fatalistic humility in songs like “Accept Yourself,” and mocked the royal family in “The Queen Is Dead.” On the other, he struck self-preening and almost regal postures in songs like “Still Ill,” which decreed, “England is mine, it owes me a living.” From the outset of his career, he’s been obsessed with fame, at times sneering at anonymous nonentities.

The first quarter of Autobiography throws us shoulder deep into the world that Morrissey tried to leave behind but returned to so many times in song: Manchester, “a place of Dickensian drear.” It was Hard Times updated to the late twentieth century, with brutalist apartment blocks erasing the old terraced slums and unemployment replacing the city’s once-storied industriousness. His descriptions of the bad weather, bad housing, and bad education are vividly, almost sensually grim. At St. Mary’s and St. Wilfrid’s, the Catholic schools Morrissey attended, “encouragement is not on any curriculum,” but humiliation and intimidation are. Corporal punishment is doled out regardless of whether any offense has been committed. Morrissey devotees know this world from songs like “The Headmaster Ritual” and “Late Night, Maudlin Street,” but some readers may think also of the muted-color bleakness of Ken Loach’s 1969 film Kes, or the sordid shame and hopelessness of “Beasley Street” by Mancunian punk poet John Cooper Clarke.

Television provides dazzling glimpses of another life of grace and prowess, whether the sporting heroism of charismatic soccer star George Best, or the UK’s long-running weekly chart rundown Top of the Pops, “a rare flash of glamour in our oh so very pale lives.” The centrality of this BBC program in British pop life created a particular structure of feeling for Morrissey’s generation. Because anything that charted was featured on the show, inspirational moments from acts like Bowie or Buzzcocks were surrounded by middle-of-the-road blandness, novelty singles, and merely professional pop. Thanks to Top of the Pops and the BBC’s pop station Radio 1, Morrissey acquired the dual sense that “it was only within British pop music that almost anything could happen,” but also that “market-driven mush” constituted the greater part of the chart and DJ playlists. Pop is a religion for Morrissey, but nearly all pop music fails the ideal.

The Smiths, then, went to war with pop. Morrissey’s sense of himself as an outcast was transferred to a larger arena. Hence the hissy-fit title of the 1987 compilation The World Won’t Listen, and the group’s dismay at the failure of its singles to crack the UK top ten. The Smiths blamed their record company, Rough Trade, for lacking the promotional muscle and will to make this happen. Autobiography is full of scores settled: sadistic teachers, two-faced journalists, slights and injuries that are often bizarrely petty (for instance, ’60s pop chanteuse Sandie Shaw, who used the Smiths as her backing band on a cover of “Hand in Glove,” is upbraided for serving him a piece of toast gone cold, without a plate). But it’s not just active affronts that Morrissey stores up in his ledger of grievances. He rages against those who failed to coddle or support him and the Smiths sufficiently strongly.

Nothing in the book surpasses the vindictive treatment of Rough Trade boss Geoff Travis, who outwardly appears to be a benefactor to the Smiths and is generally considered a fairly saintly figure in the record industry. Rough Trade had chalked up major achievements long before signing the Smiths, and Travis has remained an important figure through his work with bands like Pulp, the Libertines, and the Strokes. But Morrissey insists repeatedly that the Smiths “saved his life and made it count in the long run,” while further accusing Travis of having “zero appreciation for the songs that had saved him from life’s lavatory.”

It’s slightly shocking how tightly Morrissey clings to this bitter sense of himself as a hard-done-by underdog, after almost thirty years of fame, wealth, critical praise, and the adulation of a worldwide cult. Autobiography, in large part, runs on classic psychological mechanisms of projection and disavowal. In true narcissist style, Morrissey seems incapable of seeing how things might look from an outside perspective and has no sense that all this ungraciousness reflects back on him badly. The long low point of the book is the account of a suit brought by former Smiths drummer Mike Joyce to retroactively contest his measly 10 percent royalty share. Morrissey lost, appealed, and lost again. The financial and reputational cost still rankles him. Boiling over with indignation, Morrissey lashes out spitefully not just against Joyce, his lawyer, and Judge Weeks (who infamously described Morrissey as “devious, truculent, and unreliable”), but also the other ex-Smiths and Morrissey’s own counsel. A full forty pages are devoted to the “quagmire maze” of the case, an account that starts to recall Lenny Bruce’s twilight, when his stand-up routines degenerated into rambles through the intricacies of the legal cases that embroiled him.

Autobiography ought to be insufferable. But Morrissey’s saving grace is style, for which almost anything can be forgiven. Not as Strunk and White would define it, but style as everything in a literary performance that is extraneous and excessive—unnecessary for the purpose of communication, drawing attention to the person of the writer. Morrissey’s writing style, in fact, is rather like his dancing in the early days of the Smiths: ungainliness transformed into elegance, a coquettish prance of pity-me petulance. Flirting with but always just skirting opacity, he’s drawn to the jarring word choice, the dissonant synonym, the adjective used as noun (“the houses cackle with the droll of the extended family”). Morrissey loves bathetic fadeaways and tart twists: “Once Mikey has left he then says terrible things about me,” he observes of a departing keyboard player, “all of which are true.” He’s also partial to musical and rhythmic effects like alliteration, assonance, and internal rhyme: “drooled gruel face,” “tediously teetotal,” “a mangled jungle of tangled hair.” That last one refers to early encounters with female genitals, also described as “honeypots sprawled like open graves”—an echo of the sexual dread that suffuses “Pretty Girls Make Graves.” It makes a striking contrast with the succulence of his descriptions of the mostly male swarm of Latino fans at a Fresno show:

The good buddies are out in their mainman force, each posse and tribe bonded by their busting fresh flyboy look. . . . I face my race. I wonder how they found me. . . . I walk onstage and the roar that greets me nearly kills me—would Italian godfathers find better respect? For once I have my family. . . . Snazzy and spiffy boys point to me, sticky hands squeeze any part of me, and my bluff is called. Dare I take one on? The fire-eater within me leaps out, and I belong nowhere except over the line. Sex is advertised yet withheld—go on, make my day. It is gritty prison-cell sex, and I am shaking with courage.

It’s not just empty flash, though. Morrissey is perceptive and evocative when writing about his musical heroes and the initiating raptures they kindled in him: Bowie, T. Rex, Roxy Music, Patti Smith (Horses was “part musical recording and part throwing up”), the Ramones, and Iggy Pop (who “does not so much sing as relieve himself”). Often he seems to describe himself indirectly when praising others, like singer Kristeen Young, blessed with “talent as much a demand as a gift. . . . Be this, or die—cannon fodder for art, tears with accuracy.” But Morrissey’s not nearly as sharp when it comes to his own work; he offers cursory, clunky descriptions of the Smiths’ music and scant insights concerning the chemistry of his songwriting partnership with Johnny Marr. Overall, he’s a poor judge of his own achievements, holding on to the view—in the face of all sensible opinion—that the Smiths’ final studio LP, Strangeways, Here We Come, was their pinnacle, and apparently unaware that his last five solo albums feature tunes that are melodious but oddly unmemorable, framed in stolidly undistinguished playing.

Not that any of this matters to Morrissey’s die-hard following, which seems to be content with faint traces of the old Smiths heart-piercing magic. In the closing stretch of the book, a lyrical, free-flowing account of his tour-heavy 2000s, the singer basks in the furnace of mass ardor that greets him at huge arena concerts around the world (particular hot spots of Moz love being Scandinavia, Serbia, Turkey, and Mexico). He lists famous people he’s hobnobbed with and reels off precise figures for ticket sales, along with chart positions achieved for his three “return to form” albums of the last decade, and their many singles. Vindicated, serene (or near enough) in triumph, Morrissey asks aloud: “Smiths re-formation? What for?”