Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Invisible Postpunkbox / six Ripituprelated tunes

Wilson Neate, author of  Read & Burn: A Book About Wire, interviewed me an aeon ago for Perfect Sound Forever about Rip It Up and Start Again - during which he also did an Invisible Jukebox style test of me using five postpunk records. He recently reblogged the quiz, which originally appeared in Pop Culture Press magazine in 2006

“Careering” – PiL (Metal Box, 1979)

This is one of two songs on what’s perhaps the best side of postpunk ever, although this is lost today because it’s on CD and not in its original format of three 45 rpm 12-inch records. In the US it was released as Second Edition. “Careering” is the second of two songs on the third side – side one of the second record. The first track is “Poptones,” an amazing trance-like, almost psychedelic song, with a looping, gyrating guitar riff and this incredible Jah Wobble bassline. Rotten is singing from the point of view of being abducted and you can’t work out if he’s been murdered or not, or if he’s just lying in the woods, cowering in the foliage, with all his body heat going. And the next track is “Careering,” which has no guitar in it; instead, Keith Levene uses a synthesizer in a really abstract way and the sounds swoop over your head. The song is obliquely about Northern Ireland, at a time when the conflict must have been at its worst and there were people on hunger strike. Lydon talks about people going over the border, bringing weapons and bombs. It’s very oblique but it’s definitely about civil strife in Northern Ireland. It’s Public Image at the peak of their inventiveness. Metal Box is PiL’s masterpiece and this is their best side; this two-song sequence is a real killer.

“Lions After Slumber” – Scritti Politti (Songs to Remember, 1982)

This was originally the B-side of “The Sweetest Girl,” which is when Scritti Politti reinvented themselves as a pop band. “The Sweetest Girl” is – as its title suggests – a very “sweet,” almost cloying pop-reggae song. It’s a beautiful love song, but the sort of love song that actually questions the idea of love songs and problematizes notions of love and possession. And then, on the other side, “Lions After Slumber” is a very strange track. It’s a list song – a list song through the lens of Green’s narcissism. It’s a list of things to do with him: “my languor,” “my greed,” “my elbow,” “my indecision,” “my sex,” “my white chocolate” and so on, all these states of mind, bodily dispositions, little moments, fragments of time, things he owns, his stance. It’s obviously very influenced by post-structuralism and the idea of the self not as a unitary entity, but as a plurality or as a multiplicity, and the idea of there being no essence to someone – just these moments and interactions with things or with people. Despite the fact that it’s about the fragmented self, coming through it all is this very strong, almost feline narcissism. The way Green sings it, you feel he’s like a cat basking in himself, arching his back, really in love with himself. It comes through in this sort of falsetto he sings in. So there’s an interesting tension there between the fragmented self and this absolute self-love conveyed by the vocals. It ties in with the band’s failing really: Scritti Politti ultimately wanted to be a pop group but none of their songs ever really got beyond Green’s psyche. I imagine people bought Scritti’s records and found meanings in them for themselves but it’s all so tied up with Green and his particular anguishes and doubts.

“Houses in Motion” – Talking Heads (Remain in Light, 1980)

This is an interesting song. It was a single in England but it wasn’t a hit. It followed “Once in a Lifetime,” which was a big hit in the UK but not in America. “Houses in Motion” was sequenced on Remain in Light to follow “Once in a Lifetime,” which is about someone who’s suddenly estranged from his routine, his life, his possessions, his family, his wife. He’s estranged from it and it all seems absurd, yet that realization hits him with this sort of a cosmic force. It’s almost like a blinding, mystical epiphany: the idea that you cruise through everything without connecting with reality. And then, immediately, it goes into “Houses in Motion,” which is back inside alienation. It’s based in the same musical ideas as “Once in a Lifetime” but whereas “Once in a Lifetime” is a kind of mystical, oceanic funk, “House in Motion” is a sort of eerie, neurotic funk. The protagonist in the song is back inside neurosis. The key line is: “He’s digging his own grave.” He’s trapped in routine, going round and round, just working for these goals and missing life. So it’s almost as if the two songs are sister songs. In the first one, the guy sees through everything and grasps the oneness of existence, in an almost mystical way. In the second song he’s like a prisoner. He’s blinkered. He’s working for ambition and goals, digging his own grave, going nowhere.

“Sketch for Summer” – The Durutti Column (The Return of the Durutti Column, 1980)

Durutti Column are interesting because, a lot of the time, people think of postpunk as this sort of angular, abrasive music but a lot of lovely, ethereal music was made during that period. I would think of Cocteau Twins as a postpunk group in some ways and Young Marble Giants, for instance, made very pretty, intricate, atmospheric, low-key music.And Durutti Column are a case in point. There’s this intricate, spider web filigree of guitar-playing that’s almost too exquisite at times. I almost feel it’s vulgar how exquisite it is – all these arpeggios. It’s very delicate. There’s nothing abrasive about it. It’s a dream music, a music of reverie, of drift, of fleeting prismatic perceptions. Vini Reilly was a very delicate figure. He was anorexic. He was almost wasting away and so there’s a sense in which you almost feel that the music is an expression of his body, of his fleeting, weak grip on the world. It’s almost as if he’s going to drift away, like his music.

“We Are All Prostitutes” – The Pop Group (Single, 1979)

The Pop Group started out as quite Romantic. They were into the Beat poets and their lyrics were very abstract and imagistic. They were political but in the sense of “impossible politics”: they were into the Situationists, whose famous slogan was “Be Reasonable: Demand the Impossible.” It was that very Romantic idea of politics. Everything was politics, mysticism, poetry; it was all indivisible. Somewhere along the line, though, they got more didactic, a lot more like protest singers, and “We Are All Prostitutes” is the turning point. It’s still a very exciting song today. The music is a burning punk-funk sound. The lyrics are guilt-wracked. It captures a certain aspect of postpunk: the idea that everything’s corrupt and we’re part of a system where everything we do is connected to something evil. The Pop Group agonized over the fact that they were signed to Radar, which was part of a bigger label owned by a conglomerate involved in arms-dealing. That tortured them and they left and formed their own indie label. So that was all part of it – the feeling of being unclean and wanting to be pure. “We Are All Prostitutes” was an almost hysterical rant about consumerism and capitalism as a barbaric religion. It imagines the future when our children will be ashamed of us, stone us, disown us and feel that we’re totally corrupt. It turned a lot of people off, fans who liked the early Romantic, Byronic stuff. The Pop Group were a bit like the Romantic poets, like Blake, Shelley and Byron who were also political. Shelley and Byron were involved in liberation struggles. Byron was involved in the attempt to free Greece from Turkish rule. The Pop Group were into all those guys. But they lost a bit of their Romanticism and became very guilt-haunted. They were flagellating themselves, so guilty and tortured by living in this corrupt Western society. People found that a very black-and-white view of the world, very blinkered and a big turn off. The album For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? was very lecturing. The lyrics were almost like pamphlets given out by some left-winger outside the Tube station. It was very guilt-tripping and they lost a lot of their support but “We Are All Prostitutes” is still a powerful piece of music. In some ways, it’s more focused than their early stuff because their early Romantic phase is quite chaotic musically. But as they got more militant, they actually got more focused and hard-hitting sonically. 


Here's a similar - written this time, not spoken - thing I did in 2006 for Largehearted Boy around Rip It Up, this time the number is six.... 

1/ Sex Pistols, “Bodies” (Never Mind the Bollocks, 1977)

Well, without punk, there’d be no postpunk, right? And it was the Sex Pistols (specifically this song and “Anarchy in the UK”) that first snagged me off whatever path I was on aged fourteen and into the world of taking-music-too-seriously. Mainly, because I’d never heard anything that sounded so deadly serious before. Not so much anti-abortion as a protest against life, “Bodies” is a song that reminds you that a big part of punk’s appeal was its pure wanton evil--destruction for destruction’s sake. Almost orchestral in its grandeur (those huge backing vocal chants), “Bodies” sounds appalling and glorious. In Rip It Up and Start Again, part of my rhetorical pitch is challenging punk’s inflated historical status and bigging up “the aftermath”. This involved criticizing punk rock as a backward step, a return to basic rock’n’roll. Which is true for much of it, but the best punk was actually the distillation of rock into something that hadn’t, actually, been heard before. You go back a few years before Buzzcocks and X-Ray Spex, and really there’s nothing that has that monolithic blam-blam-blam-blam feel, even the heaviest metal or hardest-pounding Stooges had more swing to it. Still, there was a sense in which, once punk had staged this reductionist process, it couldn’t be taken anywhere, it could only be repeated with diminishing returns. Hence postpunk’s drive to expand and experiment.

2/ Public Image Ltd, “Death Disco” (single, 1979)

A protest against death: John Lydon singing (although that word seems inaccurate and inadequate for the harrowing noise unleashed here) about watching the light go out in his mother eyes. As much as the sound of the single, which made the Top 20 in Britain, what was life-changing for many, me included, was the matter/anti-matter collision of “death” and “disco” in the title. Disco, subverted by content too heavy and dark for the brightly lit celebration of the dancefloor; “death” (rock’s seriousness, its grappling with “the human condition”) subverted by disco’s hedonism and levity. Ian Dury & The Blockheads--another of my favorites back then--did something similar, albeit in a more accessible and conventionally musical way: “My Old Man” (on New Boots and Panties) was a poignant reminiscence of Dury’s own dead dad over taut funk, while “Dance of the Screamers” (from Do It Yourself) turned disco into primal scream therapy for the interpersonally challenged.

3/ Talking Heads, “Seen and Not Seen” (Remain In Light, 1980)

I got PiL’s Metal Box for Christmas 1979, and Remain In Light for Xmas the following year. I remember spending Christmas morning lying on the carpet in our living room as close to the speakers as I could get, lost in its jungle of glittering texture-rhythm. “Seen and Not Seen,” the least groove-oriented track, is actually my favorite song on the record, though. Although I didn’t realize this at the time, it’s one that bears a really heavy Eno imprint in terms of its near-ambient atmosphere, the way the synths glint and waver like heat-haze rising over a sun-baked highway. It’s similar to the “4th World” music Eno was making around this time with Jon Hassell. I love the lyric--the story of a man who learns how to change his facial appearance by gradual exercise of will, only to realise that he’s made a terrible mistake halfway through the metamorphosis--and the hesitant cadences of Byrne’s spoken delivery. People typically have a fairly limited idea of what postpunk was about--angular, stark, punk-funk, angsty--but there was a whole other side to the music that was ethereal, dreamy-drifty, and gorgeously textured, and “Seen and Not Seen” is an exquisite example. I wanted to get the track for the Rip It Up compilation, which is coming out this spring and showcases the atmospheric, blissy-eerie side of postpunk, but we couldn’t get the rights.

4/ Scritti Politti, “PAs” (from 4 A Sides EP, 1979)

There was just something really mysterious and intriguing about Scritti Politti. Somehow I’d got wind of the idea of them as this fabulously uncompromising outfit skulking in the margins of the UK postpunk scene and operating at some outer limit of politics-in-pop. I guess that was their reputation, their image, their glamour in a way, and it made them both attractive and vaguely intimidating, like a challenge that you ought to put yourself through. And then when I actually heard Scritti for the first time--it would have been “Bibbly-O-Tek,” also from 4 A Sides, on John Peel’s radio show--I was struck both by how unusual it was (the fractured song-structures, the odd chord-changes) but also how instantly beguiling the song was (the sweetness of Green’s voice, the sheer melodic beauty--which came, I realized many years later, from his childhood love of the Beatles). There was a loveliness that I completely had not expected. And when I got 4 A Sides, and the two other early EPs, I gradually became convinced Green was a pop genius. All this was well before he’d made his big turnabout and decided to go “pop” with “The ‘Sweetest Girl’”. I was such a fan that I nearly wrote him a letter telling him that he should just forget all the Scritti ideology about avoiding musical conventions and just go for it, that pop stardom was his destiny. It was “PAs,” this fantastic funk groove with a gorgeously insinuating and serpentile melody, that really sold me on this idea. This would have been the summer of 1980, when Green actually was holed up in a Welsh cottage ruminating over his musical future. But as much as it was great when he did go pop, first with the lover’s rock reggae of “Sweetest Girl” and then with the electrofunk hits like “Wood Beez,” “Absolute” and “Perfect Way”, part of me wishes he stuck with his original band and just kept on making things like “PAs” for ever.

5/ Tenor Saw, “Ring the Alarm”, 1985

I wanted to include something to register the extent to which postpunk depended for its very being on the amazing black music of the late Seventies and early Eighties--funk and disco, reggae and electro. This tune is from just outside the period Rip It Up covers, but, well, I’ve been listening to it a lot this week, and it seems as good an emblem as any for the massive effect Jamaican music had on UK postpunk. I played it yesterday and had one of those moments. It’s a midtempo skank, sweetly sung, but it hit me with the impact of The Stooges; the tension in the rhythm suddenly had this quality of tectonic violence. The line in this song that always slays me, makes my head spin, is “sweet reggae music ‘pon the attack”. If you think about what the song is actually about, it’s grim--the market struggle of sound system against sound system (“ring the alarm, another sound is dying”). It’s pitiless, Hobbesian, and yet there is such exultation in the song, same as in “War in A Babylon” by Max Romeo, another tune I’ve been playing recently.

6/ La Dusseldorf, “Dusseldorf” (La Dusseldorf, 1976)

Not strictly postpunk; indeed this album--the brainchild of Klaus Dinger of Neu!-- was recorded in 1975, making it pre-punk. But I’m including it A/ because I’ve been listening to it incessantly, and B/ David Bowie cited this album, along with Neu 75, as a huge influence on Low, which in turn was a massive LP for the postpunk bands. La Dusseldorf could therefore be seen as the Source in terms of the Neu Europa vibe that swept through so much postpunk, from Simple Minds’ Empires and Dance to The Associates (“White Car in Germany,” etc). There’s this clear-headed atmosphere of nobility and splendor to “Dusseldorf”, panoramic vistas reeling by as you head at speed into a world that’s cleansed and newborn. You get a tiny foretaste too of the glisten and uplift of early U2 and Echo & The Bunnymen, the postpunk breed of bands I call “glory boys” in Rip It Up. In Neu!, Dinger was one of the great rock drummers, he invented the motorik beat, this amazing combination of caveman primitivism and ever-shifting subtlety, a white version of Amiri Baraka’s “changing same.” One of the cool things about La Dusseldorf is that, in what seems like an act of supreme perversity, Dinger handed over the drum kit to his brother Thomas, who then proved to be just as good as Klaus. The latter, meanwhile, took up guitar and almost out-dazzled Neu! guitarist Michael Rother. I think he was trying to prove a point, that he was the real mastermind in Neu! Lyrically, “Dusseldorf” is wonderfully inane, just a chant of the city’s name, a one-word anthem of civic patriotism; sonically it’s 13 minutes of rolling motorik majesty, something I could happily listen to for fives times that length.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Ambient - the Buzzword of 1993

Ambient - the Buzzword of '93

Melody Maker, Christmas 1993

by Simon Reynolds

Aphex Twin's "Selected Ambient Works 1985-92" wasn't just the most sheerly beautiful album of '93, it was also the most significant. It signaled a Zeitgeist-shift, pointing the way to a whole new future.  First, by being so brilliant, it gave credibility to the then emergent genre of ambient techno (a.k.a intelligent techno, electronic listening music etc). It singlehandedly won over many indie fans who hadn't really listened to much techno, thus encouraging them to seek out more.  Second, it's had a profound effect on the more progressive elements in British indie-rock, the results of which will really BLOSSOM next year.  The fact that bands as diverse as Curve, Jesus Jones, Saint Etienne and Seefeel rushed to submit their songs to Richard James' remix-mutilation showed how keen the smarter indie popsters are to get in on the NEW THING.

     "Selected Ambient" and James' other releases (Polygon Window's "Surfing On Sine Waves", AFX's "Analogue Bubblebath 3" etc) weren't the only proof that techno has matured into an aesthetically (and commercially) viable album-based genre.  There were splendid offerings from Sandoz, Orbital, Bandulu, Reload, Black Dog, Pete Namlook, Mixmaster Morris and more.  But inevitably, the ambient boom has also opened the floodgates for a deluge of mediocre spliff-and-sofa muzak (B12, Sven Vath and droves more Vangelis-with-a-beat types).  Another dubious development was 'ambient dub': sometimes wonderfully spacey (Higher Intelligence Agency, Original Rockers), more often vaporously insipid sub-Orb stuff.  Like trance, ambient techno has reached something of a dead end; hopefully the sharper operators will step sideways into more interesting territory.  Aphex Twin's long-awaited sequel "Selected Ambient Works 2" - a double-CD of sombre minimalism and music concrete sound-paintings -will blow a lot of the competition out of the water.

     As for the indie avant-garde, 'ambient' is useful as a loose umbrella term for any band that deploys the studio-as-instrument and sampling in order to imagine some kind of FUTURE for rock (one that doesn't rely on blues-rock riffs, glam postures or punky-pop choruses).  Perhaps the most techno-affiliated of these bands were Insides and Seefeel (who actually linked up with Aphex on the sublime "pure, impure" EP).  Both bands demote the guitar to just another iridescent thread in their swoony tapestry of sampled and sequenced sound.  Disco Inferno ditched their axes for samplers, while the art/cosmic rock of Bark Psychosis and Papa Sprain is also ambient-tinged.  On two superb 1993 LP's, "Space Age Bachelor Pad Music" and "Transient Random Noise Bursts", Stereolab explored the unlikely links between early 60's muzak and late 60's drone-rock (Velvets, La Monte Young).  The 'Lab also imagined 'impossible' but desirable genres like "Avant-Garde MOR" and "John Cage Bubblegum".  

Other bands took Eno's legacy in a chilling, as opposed to chill-out, direction. This "isolationist music" or "uneasy listening" ranges from Ice and Scorn's post-apocalyptic dub-metal, to Main and Thomas Koner's lustrous, meditational soundscapes.

     The upshot of all this is that British avant-rock and left-field dance are coalescing into a single, seamless vanguard of progressive music.  The zone in which they commingle is the fertile hinterland between the dreampop of MBV, A.R. Kane and 4AD (so many techno artists cite the Cocteaus as an influence!), the Kraftwerk/Detroit/Warp techno lineage, and dub reggae's echo-drenched expanses.  The resultant halcyon, herbalistic sound is the fulfilment of Erik Satie's fantasy of "furniture music": sound that enhances and tints your life like a fragrance.

     "Ambient" is the rallying cry of those in revolt against two different kinds of 'hardcore'. For indie-rockers, it's a revolt against grunge (hardcore punk gone metallic and bluesy); for techno- heads, it's a revolt against 'ardkore's manic frenzy.  After the false start of 1991's ambient house craze, chill-out clubs and events made a comeback this year, thanks to outfits like London's Open Mind. The latter are responsible for the 'Telepathic Fish' parties: "massive bedrooms", strewn with mattresses and bathed in wombing lights, where burned-out ravers recline, spliff up and mellow out. Open Mind's DJ's mix Irresistible Force and Pete Namlook with Main and Dead Can Dance.  Where grunge offers crude catharsis and ardkore ravers find release through going mental at the weekend, the ambient response to our increasingly grim, anxiety-wracked world is to seek refuge in a sacro-sanctuary of sensuously spiritual sound.  Ambient caresses where grunge/ardkore concusses.  (That said, one of the most interesting developments of late '93 was 'ambient ardkore', bands like Metalheads and Foul Play who fuse jungle beats and langorous textures to bizarrely beatific effect.)

   Yes, it's all a bit hippy. Is ambient the final death of punk? Does quiet music = quietist politics (Stereolab would say no).  Given given the choice between Rage Against The Machine and soft-machine-music, though, there's only one response: BLISS ON!

Friday, May 7, 2021

Saturday, May 1, 2021

The Grid

                                            singles column, summer 1990, melody maker

The Grid
Melody Maker, July 7 1990
by Simon Reynolds

The Grid

The Observer, 30 September 1990

by Simon Reynolds

This summer, The Grid released 'Floatation', a single that perfectly captured the New Age mood that has pervaded club culture in 1990. 'Floatation' combined deep exhalations, submarine sonar blips, waves lapping the shore, with the mellow, moonwalking groove that has dominated dancefloors all year.

Like a session in a flotation tank, the track was designed to soothe your soul, lower your metabolic rate, and leave you feeling "centered".

Despite being a big success in the clubs, it narrowly missed being a chart hit, because it was too long for radio play. "We want to promote the idea of music that's not limited to a three-minute pop format," explained Richard Norris, The Grid's conceptualist and a former music journalist, "music that's not focused particularly on the lyrics, that you can use functionally, as a soundtrack to your life. The Grid has more in common with Pink Floyd or Brian Eno."

Norris sees encouraging signs of a willingness to experiment in the UK dance scene. "This year, it's seemed like there's more people like us involved, introducing all these art-rock elements. Dance music is a lot like dub reggae at the moment, in its use of space and weird effects. We've always been more interested in head music than music that makes your body move. But I think the good thing now is that those two things are being integrated."

Norris is taking that fusion even further with plans for a future album, The Origins Of Dance. It's a collaboration with the guru of psychedelia, Timothy Leary, and Fraser Clarke from the psychedelic magazine Evolution. "Fraser taped Leary reciting a speech at the Cafe Largo, which has been a beatnik enclave in San Francisco from the Fifties," Norris said.

"The speech itself was 20 years old, and is a Leary manifesto about the psychedelic powers of dance. We composed a techno-mantra backing for his recitation. Later, we met up with Leary in Amsterdam [he's still banned from the UK] and he gave it his seal of approval. He described it as 'hi-tech paganism'.

"Leary is a very impressive figure. He's in his seventies, but seems very aware and open-minded. He's totally hip to what's going on in house music, how it relates to the trance-dance idea that goes back to the earliest origins of music. And he liked the fact that acid house was a working-class phenomenon, whereas the counter-culture had been a bit bourgeois."

Norris's partner in The Grid is David Ball, the techno-boffin half of electro-pop duo Soft Cell. Norris and Ball are busy remixing and reworking Soft Cell's early Eighties classics, such as 'Tainted Love' and 'Memorabilia', in order to reintroduce them into the contemporary dance scene.

They are also producing some of ex-Soft Cell singer Mark Almond's new songs, composing music for Japanese TV commercials and soundtracks for Columbia Pictures.

The Grid's debut album, Electric Head, reflects these interests, ranging from ambient music to the "tacky disco" of the current chart-bound single, 'A Beat Called Love'.

"The Grid is a kind of reaction against theory and conceptualism," said Norris. We're neither trying to be ironic, nor make serious statements. We like to do throwaway, superficial, crass pop songs like 'A Beat Called Love', as well as atmospheric pieces like 'Floatation'. In both cases, we're not trying to 'say' anything. It's not the text that's important, it's the sensual textures of the sound."