Friday, October 29, 2021




The Factory Box Set (Rhino) 

The Word, February 2009 

by Simon Reynolds 

Not long before his untimely death, Anthony H. Wilson opined: "In the North-west it rains and it rains and yet we managed to produce the industrial revolution, the trade union movement, the Communist Manifesto and even the goddam computer. Down south, where the sun never sets, you took all our money and what did you produce? Chas and fucking Dave." 

It's a snappy little put-down, its well-executed formal structure of build-up and punch-line triggering a chuckle even from a Home Counties boy like myself. A second's scrutiny, of course, and the edifice of argument collapses in a cloud of brick dust. (Put aside the specious Manchester versus London music/culture comparisons… the remark isn't even meteorologically accurate). 

Just one of countless classic quips from A.H.W, the comment cuts to the essence of the man and the record label made in his image. Full of shit (80 percent of the time, anyway) but always stylishly so. Electronic's "Getting Away With It (All My Life)" --a song whose can't-be-arsed enervation enacts its title perfectly--really was Factory's national anthem. 

Let's get indisputable truth out of the way first: Joy Division, one of the greatest rock groups of all time, seals Factory's place in History. Furthermore, late Seventies Manchester, like other Northern cities of the era, roiled with so much postpunk talent that a fair amount plopped into Wilson's lap. I tend to see A Certain Ratio as more of a sketch towards a great idea than the fully realized thing, but their finest four moments--the drummerless "All Night Party", their emaciated version of funk obscurity "Shack Up", the dankly miasmic disco noir of "Flight" and "Knife Slits Water"--are all present on this four-disc box. Then there's Durutti Column, a vehicle for the spidery virtuosity of Viny Reilly, the most gifted guitarist Morrissey would ever work with and someone who could have had a long, productive career at ECM if he'd refrained from (occasionally) singing on his own records. 

But even during the postpunk wonder years Factory also housed such enduring legends as John Dowie (present here with "It's Hard To Be An Egg"), X-O-Dus (a decent-enough local reggae band whose "English Black Boys" is really only of historical-sociological interest), and Crispy Ambulance (bizarrely over-rated--by Factory cultists, anyway--but a classic instance of that label syndrome of signing up acts who sound like your most successful act but aren't one tenth as good.) One wonders too about the missed opportunity of that long gap where The Fall didn't have anybody prepared to put out their music (until London hippies Rough Trade scooped up Manchester's equal-first group of the era and released their most sustained stretch of recorded genius). 

There's likeable moments and compelling curios all across the Early Years of Disc One: pleasing power pop from The Distractions, Crawling Chaos's hysterically lewd "Sex Machine," and Section 25's "Girls Don’t Count," which grinds and pummels like the rockier first side of Closer. But overall, you can see exactly why it was that, at Factory's London showcase of 1980 at the Moonlight Club, Joy Division headlined every bleedin' night. 

Factory grew steadily out of step with the times in the early Eighties, when one half of postpunk crossed over into the mainstream as New Pop, while the other half turned into "indie". Failing to talent-spot The Smiths, the label instead issued a long grey streak of what could charitably be described as "late postpunk": Tunnel Vision, The Wake, Stockholm Monsters, Biting Tongues, Royal Family and the Poor. 

The few bright spots on Disc 2 and 3 stem from the label's unlikely infatuation with New York club culture: New Order, obviously, but also Quando Quango's gawky but boisterously percussive "Love Tempo" and the thrilling synth-shimmers of "Cool As Ice" by local black electrofunk outfit 52nd Street. Cabaret Voltaire, who cropped up first on this box with The Factory Sample's creepy "Baader Meinhof," reappear with a "Yashar" retooled by Manhattan mixologist John Robie. (Then again, they're another Northern band whose classic releases came out on a--spit--Southern label, Rough Trade once more.) 

By mid-decade the Factory aesthetic is all over the shop: Wilson's A&R ear fastening one minute on jazzy-souly-Latiny duffers like Swamp Children and Kalima (bands just made for a half-page featurette in The Face circa 1984), the next on shandy-weak C86 also-rans Miaow and Railway Children. To be fair, Wilson did shrewdly see seeds of some sort of greatness in two local oddities. James, in their early days far more intriguing than their later stadium-singalong incarnation, plied a semi-improvised folk-pop of delicate but diamond-hard purity, heard here with "Hymn From a Village." And Happy Mondays: "Freaky Dancing" and "24 Hour Party People" can hardly be said to prophesy rave, but their cack-handed lumpen-funk, midway between Can and Bohannon, does entrance. 

And then came Ecstasy and house music to fill up the hitherto deserted dancefloor of the Hacienda. While the Mondays built an audience for their hypno-grooves by peddling pills to the punters, Wilson peddled ideology: a distinctly slanted version of recent pop history in which Manchester invented rave culture (try telling that to the London deejays who holidayed in Ibiza in '86/'87, to the M25 orbital ravers and East End warehouse bods). Even dafter was the notion that "Ecstasy got the white man to dance" for the first time, a Factory party-line touted by everyone from New Order to Stone Roses in blithe disregard of discrepant precedents like jazz funk, Northern Soul, the mods, and trad jazz (whose beery middle class student fans had actually been the first to be slurred "ravers," by the Daily Mail, back in 1962). What the absurd claim really meant was that a certain coterie of grey, overcoat-clad Fac-heads had finally gotten on the good foot. 

Yet strangely the label didn't sign up any of Manchester's house music talent, like A Guy Called Gerald or 808 State. As a result, apart from the Happy Mondays tunes that make up a full third of its contents, the post-Ecstasy Factory of Disc Four is a dead zone: a once-great label puttering into insolvent oblivion with New Order side projects Revenge and The Other Two plus the band proper's desperately unmemorable "Fine Time" and cheesy chart-topper "World In Motion', the sub-EMF nothingness of Northside, a Cath Carroll remix… "Sadchester" is more like it. No doubt every ounce of the label's energy was being swallowed by the black hole of the increasingly troubled Hacienda. 

I've deliberately exaggerated my opinion here, just like A.H.W would do. But I do genuinely think it's a peculiar thing, this mystique surrounding Factory. You can't imagine anyone making a movie about Rough Trade or 4AD or Mute, labels whose respective bosses were never as colourful or charismatic or relentlessly quotable as Wilson for sure, but whose actual output outclasses the Facc lads over the long haul. 

Still, the sleeves always did look really, really nice.


reposted apropos of nothing, honest...


the second coming - 1996

bonus Factoryism - when they were great

24 Hour Party People

(director’s cut, Film Comment, summer 2002)

by Simon Reynolds

No British city has a greater sense of self-mystique than Manchester. Populous enough to swagger convincingly as a counter-capital to London, yet still eclipsed by the latter’s concentration of political, financical, and media power, Manchester has developed a retaliatory superiority complex: Northern suss and spirit versus those smug, effete "Southern wankers." Near the close of 24 Hour Party People--Michael Winterbottom’s lightly fictionalized movie about Factory, the legendary Manchester post-punk record label---TV presenter and Factory CEO Tony Wilson explains his motivations in terms of "civic pride". This peculiar provincial patriotism is the heart of the film, but like so much in Party People, it’s so thinly fleshed out it’s hard to see how someone not familiar with A/ the Factory story and B/ Britain’s class-inflected regional antagonisms, would even notice it.

Along with its damp climate and post-industrial grey decay (much improved since the 1976-92 period covered in Party People, thanks to urban regeneration funding), Manchester is justly reknowned for music: a series of epoch-defining bands, from Factory’s own Joy Division (and its successor band New Order) through The Smiths to Stone Roses, Happy Mondays (the other legendary Factory group), and Oasis. 24 Hour Party People’s cardinal flaw is its failure to convey what made Joy Division and Happy Mondays special, why they transcended local cult status and captured the national imagination.

Music qua music has always been a challenge for the rock movie, which is why they tend to stick to the ‘Behind The Music’ dirt ‘n’ drama of interband conflicts, mismanagement, drug abuse; the dream of fame-and-fortune achieved only for it to turn nightmare. Neither music’s germinal mysteries (jam sessions, the intracranial moment of inspiration) nor its raptures (the solitary listener’s bliss, the crowd’s collective fervor) lend themselves to narrative.

Nonetheless, for a good thirty minutes, Party People seems to have pulled it off. The reconstructions of the Sex Pistols 1976 performance at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall (attended by a scant 42 people, who became the kernel of the local punk scene) and of an early Joy Division show transmit the real rush of rock’n’roll history in the making. And the film seems to have struck an inspired balance between docudrama realism and postmodern self-reflexive wit. Wilson, played by the brilliant British comedian Steve Coogan, addresses the camera Alfie-style, narrating his own story and helpfully pointing out when things have been distorted or made up for extra mythic impact.

Almost immediately after Joy Division enter the picture, though, Party People begins to unravel. The group’s vocalist Ian Curtis (Sean Harris) was worshipped at the time as a seer who tapped into the currents of dread and anomie pervading post-punk Britain. In Party People, you get no real sense of this complicated, troubled figure. Approaching Wilson for the first time at a punk gig, Curtis greets him with the words "you’re a cunt". For no explicable reason, the movie leaves out what he said next, "’cause you haven’t put us on television": a reference to Wilson’s So It Goes, at that time the only TV show featuring punk bands. So instead of demonstrating Curtis’s ambition and hunger for stardom, the movie creates the impression of aimless, loutish aggression. Similarly, Curtis’s epilepsy (a latent trait he seems to have somehow harnessed for the convulsive trance-dance of his stage performance, only for it to get out of control) is not set up at all, and his suicide is botched, appearing as a seemingly impulsive act. In a typically pointless gesture of historical fidelity, we see Curtis watching Herzog’s Stroszek’s on TV a few hours before hanging himself---just about the only hint of Curtis’s true artiness. As a result of all this, when Wilson gazes at Curtis in the chapel of rest and declares "that’s the Che Guavera of rock there," the eulogy seems comically overstated and utterly unsubstantiated by what we’ve seen so far. Still, Curtis fares better than Joy Division’s other members, who aren’t even formally introduced by name.

As for the label's other two geniuses, Martin Hannett (Andy Serkis), the maverick producer who had so much to do with the eerie spartan Factory sound, comes across as little more than a foul-tempered drunk, while not a single shred of evidence is mustered to sustain Wilson’s repeated (and absurd) claim that Happy Mondays’s singer Shaun Ryder (Danny Cunningham) is the greatest poet since Yeats. What is actually depicted--sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ rave’n’roll--makes the Mondays look more like a Mancunian Motley Crue.

Wilson hogs the screen, with much time devoted to an initially hilarious but steadily diminishing running joke about the trivial stories he’s obliged to cover on his TV show (midget zoo keepers, a duck who can round up sheep). Yet Wilson’s own complexity is sold short. Cambridge-educated Wilson was steeped in the renegade canon of anarcho-surrealist literature and politics, peppering Factory output with allusions to Lautreamont and naming his nightclub The Hacienda after a Situationist slogan. The movie gestures at Wilson’s underlying seriousness, but only in a mocking, borderline anti-intellectual way. Mostly he comes over as an odd mix of buffoon and visionary, a naif-with-integrity whose contracts (signed using his own blood) declared only that the bands retained ownership of their music and were free to leave whenever they pleased.

Party People jumps swiftly from Curtis’s 1980 death to the reign of Happy Mondays as house band at The Hacienda, during the 1988-91 "Madchester" period when the club was an Ecstasy-soaked mecca for ravers across the land. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Factory is how it survived for so long given the sporadic nature of Wilson’s A&R skills (he passed on The Smiths, for instance, and between JD and Mondays signed an awful lot of undistinguished bands—Kalima anyone?) and his lack of business acumen. New Order’s 1983 hit "Blue Monday" was the biggest selling 12 inch single of all time, but lost Factory a fortune because its lavish Peter Saville cover cost more than the label’s profit margins. When it comes to Factory’s eventual collapse (partly caused by Happy Mondays’s profligacy), the movie glosses over the real pain and humiliation this must have involved. Instead, we see Wilson closing down the Hacienda with a massive shindig and inviting the revellers to ransack the offices for computers and other strippable assets.

Like so many post-Trainspotting Brit-films—think especially of the ill-starred rave flick Human TrafficParty People is relentlessly lively, as if convinced that the youth market will not stand for stillness or sombreness (essential, surely, if you wish to convey a sense of Manchester’s Ballardian desolation in the 1970s, so crucial to Joy Division’s atmosphere). Characters are constantly shouting and swearing, and there’s barely a scene that doesn’t involve drink or drugs. On the plus side, the movie has plenty of gags, energetic hand-held camera work, and some striking set-pieces---like the scene where the teenage Shaun Ryder and brother poison three thousand pigeons on top of an apartment block. It’s quite possible, especially if you have absolutely nothing invested in the idea of Joy Division or the whole post-punk era, that you’ll find 24 Hour Party People highly entertaining---a feel-good movie about suicide, drug fuck-ups, and business failure, yay! Then again, to actually follow the film on even a basic narrative level, you’d need to know a lot about Factory already. Here is Party People’s paradox, its Achilles heel of "negative crossover": the movie is sure to irritate the only people truly equipped to watch it, while those with no real emotional connection to the subject will most likely be confused and leave the theater having gleaned little sense of what was at stake in Factory’s struggle.  

even more bonus Factory-ism 

CONTROL - Joy Division on film

director's cut, The New York Times, October 19 2007

by Simon Reynolds

 The mystique surrounding Joy Division has always been way out of proportion to their record sales. While other far bigger artists, such as The Clash, David Bowie or Pink Floyd, are still waiting to get a biopic, the postpunk cult from Manchester have two to their name. The first, 2002’s bright, hyper-active 24 Hour Party People couldn’t be further in mood from the lustrous monochrome and stillness of Anton Corbijn's new ControlParty People wasn’t entirely devoted to Joy Division (its focal character was Factory Record co-founder Anthony H. Wilson, the band’s patron and tireless champion). But it’s hard to imagine that movie getting made without the gravitas and international name recognition supplied by Joy Division.

 Crucial to the group's dark magnetism at the time and its abiding allure ever since is the charisma of doomed frontman Ian Curtis. This manifested itself in everything from the relatively small number of photographs (many taken by Corbijn himself) that have kept the singer's cool ageless in black-and-white, to Curtis's lyrics with their combination of unflowery directness and mysterious poetic depths. Like Morrissey (except without the latter’s Wildean wit), Curtis’s despair has a perennial appeal to sensitive teenagers confronting for the first time the possibility that life is meaningless. But to describe such a worldview as adolescent is condescending and misleading. After all, it could be that the stark perceptions granted during that emotionally raw-skinned period of our lives are actually correct, and that these insights only get blunted by the arrival of adult comforts and commitments.

Joy Division suits the big screen in part because of the narrative shape provided by Curtis’ suicide.  Rock biopic makers love an early death (that’s why there’s a film about Brian Jones, but not about the Stones). Well before his dramatic exit, Curtis was already being treated like a seer, a postpunk equivalent to Jim Morrison. The suicide transformed that charisma into a martyr-like aura. This idea of Curtis as a fallen savior was later played up in Corbijn’s 1988 video for the re-released single “Atmosphere,” where a procession of cowled, monk-like figures carry a gigantic placard depicting the singer--an out-size religious icon, essentially.

In some ways, Control  is Corbijn’s belated sequel to (or massively expanded remix of)  that black-and-white, Ingmar Bergman-esque promo. But a full-length movie can’t rely on the power of pure imagery the way a video can. Corbijn was always going to have to try to “explain” Joy Division. One obvious approach would be to situate their music as the product of a time and place. The place: Manchester, a declining industrial city in the Northwest of England, where annual rainfall rates are even worse than the rest of the country.  The time: the late Seventies, when Britain was gripped by a dreadful sense of malaise, with labour unrest, rising unemployment, and a resurgence of Far Right militancy on the streets. Yet the band’s impact all over the world and across subsequent decades shows the limits of that approach. Joy Division’s songs were never topical in any crude sociopolitical sense and a history lesson is no more required to understand “Shadowplay” or “Disorder” than an understanding of 11th Century Scottish politics is necessary to be gripped by Macbeth.

While unstinting in its attention to period detail, Control barely references what’s going on in late Seventies Britain. Instead, Corbijn opts for a different but in its own way equally reductive perspective: biography. The "truth" of Joy Division’s songs is presented as Ian Curtis’ increasingly out-of-control life: the disintegration of his marriage shortly after the birth of his daughter, accelerated by his affair with a glamorous Belgian journalist, and the conflicting pressures of impending fame versus a rapidly deteriorating epilepsy condition.

Curtis’s woes makes for a gripping story, but as a prism for understanding Joy Division the approach has its limits. The singer’s lyrics are rarely straightforwardly depictions of an individuals’ life. Crucially, they are existential rather than autobiographical. Curtis stripped away the concrete, everyday details that a more observational songwriter would use to impart a sense of lived reality. Sourced in his private hell as they often are (especially on the posthumously released second album Closer), there’s an element of depersonalization. The singer inhabits these songs as a sort of EverySelf confronted by the big dilemmas and impasses of the human condition, the conflicts and quandaries of trust, doubt, betrayal, dread, claustrophobia, futility. Ordinary life achieves an epic grandeur (hence its perennial fit with the wounded narcissism of adolescence). But there’s no bombast or emotional theatrics, but rather a modernist starkness as pared down as a Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter play. “Existential” is the right word, because the canon of existentialist literature (Kafka, Conrad, Camus, Dostoevsky) was massively influential on postpunk bands like Joy Division and their equally angst-wracked contemporaries Josef K and Magazine.  (It was a hyper-literate time when singers went around with Penguin Modern Classics poking out of the pocket of their long black overcoats).  Curtis’s words are all the more effective through being framed by music that had the hard-rocking power of The Stooges but was too repressed to actually rock out. This inhibited, at times disjointed quality, which owed a lot to Steve Morris’s inventive circular drumming patterns, enhanced the group’s aura of modernist severity. It also aligned them with Mittel Europa and the decidedly un-American electronic rock of Kraftwerk. By Closer they were dabbling with synthesizers, a penchant that would blossom in New Order.

 The other problem with situating Joy Division’s meaning in the specifics of Curtis’s life is that during the group’s lifetime, hardly any of this was public knowledge. Virtually nobody outside the Factory Records milieu was aware of Curtis’ marital problems and few knew that he suffered from epilepsy. It’s really only since the 1995 publication of Touching From A Distance, the memoir by his widow Deborah Curtis on which Control is largely based, that the truth has become more widely known. The foundations of the group’s enduring cult were laid during a 15 year period in which Curtis truly was an enigma, a mystery man whose reasons for departing this mortal coil remained cloudy.

 Facts, once learned, are hard to dislodge from your mind, though, and as soon as you’re acquainted with the back story, Curtis’s suicide seems logical, even over-determined. Yet there’s one key factor mentioned in Touching From A Distance that Control chooses to ignore: Curtis’s romantic fascination with rock stars who died young, their legend inviolate from the ravages of artistic decline and physical decay.  As Deborah Curtis wrote, “[Ian]  told me that he had no intention of living beyond his early twenties.”

This apparent death-wish suggests that amid the depression and confusion, there was an aesthetic component to his fatal decision. Much is made of the supposed paradox that Joy Division were ordinary, unassuming lower middle class lads who liked a beer and a laugh. But just a glance at just their song titles, let alone full immersion in their music, shows they were also aesthetes who looked to art as an escape from and triumph over the soul-crushing dreariness of real life.  From his teenage infatuation with glam rock (evoked with vivid economy in Control) through his love of modernist literature to the attention he and his band-mates paid to the records’ cover design, Curtis clearly appreciated the power of gesture. Effectively terminating the band along with himself (they’d vowed to drop the name Joy Division if any member quit), Curtis’s suicide ensured that the group’s body of work would be compact and near-immaculate.

 Right from the start, Curtis was driven by a fierce ambition to become precisely the kind of edge-walking rock shaman/savior that he ended his life as. The manner of the ending sealed the deal, giving Joy Division’s music an appalling gravity and--for better or worse--an undeniable authenticity.   Because the suicide preceded the release of both Closer and the group’s most famous single “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” it determined their reception and their resonance. It could be that Curtis planned it that way. He played a major role in choosing Closer’s cover, a photograph of a sculpture tableau in a Genoa cemetery of the dead Christ surrounded by mourners. And he had already made one attempt at killing himself a few months before recording Closer.

Myth is what rock music is all about, despite the attrition of facts and over-exposure wrought by historians and gossipers alike.  It’s at this mythopoeic level that Control succeeds. Corbijn made his name as a rock photographer with the pictures he took of Joy Division. With this tone poem of a movie, he continues what he started in those photographs: the creation of a visual language that uncannily paralleled what Joy Division did with sound, which was to assimilate the desolation of their surroundings and  dislocation of their era while simultaneously aestheticizing it, transfiguring it into somber glamour.  The barren beauty of that landscape of sound was an exteriorization of how lots of people felt inside at that late Seventies moment--the dawn of the Thatcher-Reagan era, a freshly frigid Cold War with renewed anxiety about armageddon. But tension and dread are far more the norm than they are the exception, which explains the time-defying and endlessly renewing appeal of Joy Division's records.

While there’s plenty of their music in Control, the way it bursts out of the subdued near-silence of the rest of the movie makes it seem like a force of nature, rather than a product of human effort. Control  keeps the music shrouded in mystery. The storyline leaps straight from the band’s decision to form to the group waiting nervously to go onstage for the first time. We don’t see how the group gradually arrived at their sound (a painfully slow emergence from the coarse chrysalis of the punky-sounding Warsaw). We don’t learn anything about how Steve Morris came up with those unique gyrating drum patterns, or the genesis of Peter Hook’s unorthodox bass-as-lead-melodic-instrument style, or where the implosive violence of Bernard Sumner’s guitar playing originated. Martin Hannett, the producer who played a huge role in shaping the uncanny spatiality of Joy Division’s recordings, makes only the briefest appearance.

This isn’t unusual for rock biopics, which invariably focus on  the things that music brings--drug problems, bad management, love entanglements, fame going to the artist’s head-- while avoiding music-making itself. And maybe that’s understandable, given that the nitty-gritty of band life is either uncinematic (the mundane graft of rehearsals, jamming out songs, recording sessions, tour buses, soundchecks, etc) or unfilmable (the flash of inspiration inside the songwriter’s head). Control is in some ways better for avoiding the demystifying hum drum of workaday musical practice, although it did make me wonder why there's never been a rock equivalent to Topsy Turvy, Mike Leigh’s film about Gilbert and Sullivan and the D’Oyly Carte, a movie that shows the craft and collegiality of collective musical creativity.  (The closest I could think of was the Southern hip hop movie Hustle and Flow, where we actually get to see the group write a crunk track, albeit with implausible ease and swiftness). But in addition to scanting on Joy Division as musicians, Control  imparts little sense of the music’s impact outside the Factory circle, the way that by early 1980 the group had assumed a hallowed, central role in postpunk culture. 

 Fair enough, perhaps, given that Corbijn has pointedly stressed that this is a film about Ian Curtis, not Joy Division. Still, it seems off-balance if only because of the enormity of music in Curtis's life.  And ultimately it's the music that keeps any of us still enthralled, nearly three decades on.  There is a sense in which music and cinema can never coexist happily because they represent realms of sensory experience that are in competition. It’s telling that Joy Division were about sound (this was rock at its hardest, but without any of metal’s macho bombast) and vision (Curtis’ unflinching lyrics), but not so much about visuals. Photographs of the band appeared on none of their releases, a conscious choice (a bid for timelessness) made by the band as much as by Factory designer Peter Saville. So perhaps the ultimate Joy Division movie will always be the one playing over your closed eyelids when you listen.

Thursday, October 21, 2021


Ben Ratliff

Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty

New York Times, February 17 2016

By Simon Reynolds

Complaining that there’s too much good art and entertainment being made at the moment seems churlish — how could that be a problem? Yet it’s undeniable that there is something curiously oppressive about the current bounty, something paralyzing about our ease of access to it. Television is one field where what ought to be a boon feels increasingly like a bane: With scores of new shows each season, keeping up with what’s good gets to seem like a chore. If anything, the overload in music feels even more unmanageable.

Ben Ratliff’s new book is a remedial intervention for the problem of being able to “hear nearly everything, almost whenever, almost wherever, often for free.” “Every Song Ever” is framed as a set of strategies to counter the confusion and appetite loss that can afflict music fans as they try to navigate what feels like a cross between a maze and a banquet: the overflowing riches offered by streaming services like Spotify, unofficial archives like YouTube, music-sharing blogs and other instant-access sources of sound.

Rather than rely on traditional signposts like genre borders or artist biography, Mr. Ratliff, a music critic for The New York Times, proposes new routes across the teeming landscape: modes of attentive listening based on concepts or musical properties. Some, like slowness, speed, stillness and density, are fairly easy to grasp; others, like discrepancy and transmission, are more elusive.

Close listening is Mr. Ratliff’s forte. When he gets right inside what a musician is doing in a particular recording or performance, and describes how that affects your body or perceptions, the results are usually lovely and illuminating. His studies of James Brown’s “Ain’t It Funky Now,” Sleep’s “Dopesmoker,” and the work of João Gilberto and Curtis Mayfield, are precise but never clinical.

The chapter “Getting Clear,” dealing with “audio space” as conjured on records by producers and engineers as well as by players, is particularly vivid, covering artists as various as the Grateful Dead, Roy Haynes, Pink Floyd, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Miley Cyrus. Mr. Ratliff fulfills the injunction of Manfred Eicher, the founder and in-house producer of the ECM label, to “think of your ears as eyes.”

Another absorbing chapter deals with participatory discrepancies, a concept coined by the musicologist Charles Keil to describe the minute imprecisions in a performance that create a group’s distinctive feel. Mr. Ratliff advises that the best way to hear a classic rumba album by Totico Arango and Patato Valdés is “through headphones, at night, walking through heavy crowds in Times Square, smelling street food, visually processing the lights.” That’s because the music in your ears will mirror the external environment: “nothing happens in perfect synch or in a straight line”; instead there’s a mesh of “flickering, jostling particulars.”

Mr. Ratliff leans toward nontechnical terms and unshowy language, which he then nudges toward the profound or revealing. Sometimes that works brilliantly: a passage on the Allman Brothers and the glory of bands with two drummers likens the role of Jaimoe to “a housepainter doing touch-ups, not on the second day of work but as the first coat is applied.” Other times, the effect falls somewhere between cute and clever, as when he tries to account for why virtuosos are so often religious: “Perhaps they can’t contain their own pride and gratitude, or they can’t house the gigantic battery needed to power it. They need an external storage space for it, and they call it God.”

A larger problem with “Every Song Ever” is that its premise starts to fade from view — starts to seem like a pretext, in fact, for a fragmented miscellany of meditations on music that Mr. Ratliff likes. That’s fine as far as it goes, and readers will often find themselves propelled to YouTube or Spotify to hear what he’s writing about.

But I wasn’t convinced that the nomadic modes of engagement with music Mr. Ratliff advocates would necessarily help anyone grapple with the quandaries of listening in an overloaded era. His categories are so open-ended that they might even increase your sense of disorientating plenitude. They seem more like exercises you might do after having listened to a hugely varied amount of music over the course of a lifetime.

Mr. Ratliff is both wary and weary of genre, which, near the start of the book, he asserts is “a construct for the purpose of commerce, not pleasure, and ultimately for the purpose of listening to less.” Genre terms, though, mostly emerge organically out of communities of musicians and fans. Although Mr. Ratliff announces early on that he’ll refrain from using genre language wherever possible, in practice he nearly always identifies music using those tags: as bebop, happy hard-core, flamenco, dark ambient, nyabinghi.

Genre terms are useful, perhaps even indispensable; they tell you something. The self-consciously genre-crossing critic — just like the self-consciously genre-blending musician — depends on style boundaries precisely so as to transgress them and achieve desired sensations of liberation, discovery, and an airy cosmopolitan feeling of rising above the rooted and local.

Mr. Ratliff uses terms like “comfort zone” as negative concepts, implying that listening widely is virtuous, or at least good for you, promoting a suppleness of sensibility. But fanatical relationships with a particular sound or scene can be just as engaged, just as rewarding. Metal fiends, for instance, find an infinite array of subtle shades in what seems like undifferentiated monotony to non-initiates.

This sort of patriotic adherence to genre is something that Mr. Ratliff believes is on the way out, historically. Which may be true, but is that a good thing? The roaming listener who samples across the genrescape is more often than not harvesting musical fruits that were generated by narrowly focused and dedicated purists.

It remains debatable whether there is a right or wrong, healthy or unhealthy way to listen to music. Being an omnivore doesn’t even guarantee increased enjoyment. There are people who derive endless delight listening to just one kind of music, or even a single artist, as Mr. Ratliff acknowledges in a section about people he has encountered who have all-consuming obsessions for Frank Zappa or the Grateful Dead’s live recordings. Conversely, one of the downsides of the age of plenty is that the more widely you listen outside your well-worn grooves, the more frequently you’ll experience disappointment, distaste or just indifference. More is less.

[reposted this apropos of absolutely nothing - honest!]

Wednesday, October 13, 2021



Plunderphonics 69/96


(Uncut review I think)


In this "pop will regurgitate itself" era, sampling and referentiality is so par for the course, it's barely comment-worthy. Flashback, though, to a time when the debates about bricolage and (re-, mis-, and ex-) appropriation were more urgent: the late Eighties of Def Jam, the JAMMS, M/A/R/R/S, Steinski, that moment when the sampler suddenly got much cheaper. Canadian avant-gardist John Oswald had been messin' with music by iconic artist for years, using traditional tape-editing techniques, and he seized the opportunities presented by the new digital technology. The result was 1989's Plunderphonic CD: songs by Elvis Presley, James Brown, Count Basie, Stravinsky,  and others, vivisected and rebuilt into grotesque mutant alter-egos.   What was different about Oswald's approach was that each track focused on a single artist, and usually a single work. This sort of aural Pop Art mischief wasn't unprecedented, either in the academy (James Tenney's 1961 Elvis-deconstruction "Collage No. 1 (Blue Suede) or in pop itself (The Residents Reich'n'Roll), but Oswald's cover (per)versions were especially extreme.


Despite being scrupulous about identifying his sources, and circulating Plunderphonic on a non-commercial basis, Oswald was persecuted by the Canadian Recording Industry Association (largely because CBS were upset by his reworking of Michael Jackson's "Bad") and forced to destroy all remaining copies of the CD. For years, the only way to hear it has been to contact various Copyright Liberation outfits who'd tape it for free. But now, finally, Oswald has secured permission for all his  "electroquotes" and has re-released Plunderphonic, plus some of his earlier and later collages, in a deluxe CD box. There's an extensive booklet, which goes into fascinating detail about Oswald's techniques and diverse approaches to each different song-treatment, along with all the related issues of originality, copyright, artistic signature, etc, that Oswald is exploring.


Listening to the set's two discs, a certain Oswald "signature" emerges:   a partiality for choppy, fractured rhythms and weird time signatures. The herky-jerky cut-up of  "Hello I Love You" sounds like the Magic Band reduced to eking out an existence as a covers band, with the players uncannily imitating the Doors's instrumental and vocal timbres, but restructuring the tune in the jagged spirit of Trout Mask Replica.  Extracts from Plexure, Oswald's attempt to compress the entire pop universe into one 20 minute piece, offer a frenzy of crescendos, choruses, soul-screams, whammy-bar back-blasts, etc, an FM radio inferno that spawns monstrous hybrids like Annie Lennox amalgamated with Fine Young Cannibals inna Cronenburg/The Fly-stylee.  There are also moments of beguiling delicacy, though: offcuts of Juan Carlos Joabim bossanova rewoven into a beautiful quilt of lilt; "Strawberry Fields Forever" condensed into a quintessential quiver of wistful ethereality; a varispeeded "White Christmas" that makes Bing's croon droop and ooze like a Dali dreamscape. "Pretender" is a sex-change version of a Dolly Parton song descending from only-audible-to-dogs ultra-treble to a testosterone-thick basso profundissimo, and  executed using a Lenco turntable that  goes from 80 rpm down to 12 rpm.


The most stunning of  Oswald's plunderphonic feats is "Dab", his infamous unravelling of Michael Jackson's "Bad".  Attempting to bring sorely-needed electricity to what he felt was musically lifeless, Oswald does his usual Beefheart/Zorn-style thing at first, transforming the song into convulsive cyber-funk. Halfway through, though, the remake ascends to another place altogether. Micro-syllable vocal particles are multitracked as if in some infinite hall-of-mirrors vortex, and this ghost-swarm of nano-Jacksons strobes stereophonically from speaker to speaker, while simultaneously billowing back and forth through dub-space. The opposite approach to Plexure's maximalist assault, "Dab" creates a new universe within a finite, not-especially-great pop song. It's one of the most cosmic (micro-cosmic?) things I've ever heard. And it alone justifies the not-cheap admission price to Plunderphonics 69/96. 

John Oswald

Plunderphonics 69/96


(eMusic review I think)

Canadian avant-gardist John Oswald is most renowned for 1989’s Plunderphonic, the CD on which he turned sampling into a form of digital iconoclasm--literally smashing pop idols to smithereens. Unlike most practitioners of sampling, Oswald concentrated on reworking a single work by a single artist: typically, vivisecting a song and recombining the sliced’n’diced parts into a grotesque Frankenstein’s monster. Despite scrupulously identifying his sources and circulating Plunderphonic on a strictly non-commercial basis, Oswald was hounded by the Canadian Recording Industry Association (CBS were vexed by his mauling of Michael Jackson's "Bad") and ultimately forced to destroy all remaining copies. A double-CD career anthology, 69/96 makes available again the Plunderphonic tracks. It also includes Oswald’s pre-sampling pieces (the Mystery Lab cassettes done by tape cut’n’splice or using a doctored turntable going from 80 rpm to 12 rpm) and excerpts from later works like Plexure (5000 radio hits “composited” into a 20 minute barrage of crescendos, choruses, soul-screams, whammy-bar back-blasts, and so forth). Oswald is a serious artist aiming to raise all kinds of questions relating to copyright and artistic originality. But there’s a strong element of pure mischief to plunderphonia, and one way of responding to 69/96 is to treat it as a barrel of laughs.

 Disc One

 “O’Hell” is a hilariously herky-jerky undoing of The Doors’ “Hello, I Love You”. “Sfield” distils “Strawberry Fields Forever" into a tremulously ethereal wisp of wistfulness. “White” makes Bing Crosby’s croon ooze pendulously like Dali’s melting clocks. “Pretender” inflicts sex-change on Dolly Parton by taking her voice from bat-squeak treble to molasses-thick infra-bass. Piece de resistance and yet-to-be-topped career pinnacle, though, is “Dab”, Oswald’s unraveling of “Bad”. It starts as epileptic cyberfunk, then halfway through takes off into the cosmos, with Oswald multitracking a myriad infinitesimal particles of Jackson’s voice into a billowing shroud that strobes eerily across the stereo field. One of the most ecstatically disorienting things you’ll ever hear.

 Disc Two

 Listen long enough to plunderphonia and a certain  Oswald “signature” emerges--a fondness for fractured rhythms and disconcerting time signatures (you get the impression that he never quite recovered from hearing Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica). On this disc, based around instrumental music rather than the first disc’s focus on songs, you can hear this convulsive choppiness in “Birth1” (based on The Beatles’ “Birthday”) and “Mach” (a frenzied collage of Kronos Quartet and heavy metal). Refreshing exceptions to the pell-mell rule include the trippy undulating wooze of  “Fold” and  the eerie tranquility of “Debizet”. “dWig” , meanwhile, showcases Oswald’s skill at isolating the artistic signature of his victim (in this case, Ludwig Van Beethoven) and intensifying it to the point of caricature. 


minifeature for Melody Maker

Sampling may be the everyday stuff of modern pop, but for a certain breed of avant-garde artist it's also a highly self-conscious technique that allows them to explore issues of originality and copyright. Canadian producer/composer  John Oswald is one such sampladelic researcher. His 1989 CD  Plunderphonics' involved the digital deconstruction of songs by the Beatles, Dolly Parton and Elvis, amongst many others. And it got Oswald into a heap of trouble. Acting on behalf of Michael Jackson's record company  CBS (offended as much by the cover image of Wacko's head superimposed on a nude female torso as by the drastic dismemberment of  "Bad" inside), the Canadian Recording Industry Association forced Oswald to destroy the master tapes and all remaining CD's.

      Fingers burned, Oswald has since stuck mostly to projects where his "electroquoting" has been solicited. Last year, he accepted just such an invitation from the Grateful Dead, and decided to construct a sort of megamix  of  "Dark Star", a 'song'  the  grizzled West Coast acid-rockers have been stretching out to kozmik proportions in their live improvs for more than a quarter-century.  After 21 days in the Dead's  legendary tape archive, Oswald emerged with 40 hours worth of material, which he painstakingly wove into a seamless uber-jam, using an array of digital techniques and treatments. The first instalment, "Transitive Axis", was released in late '94;  the second, "Mirror Ashes" has now been added to form a double-CD package entitled "Grayfolded". The result is both a remarkably sympathetic interpretation of the Dead's flow-motion aesthetic,  and a luminous tribute to the late Jerry Garcia.

      "Folded" refers to Oswald's primary method, "folding", whereby material from different, often decades-apart concerts is layered, achieving both Phil Spector-like textural density and an eerie anachronistic sense of time travel. "But the computer techniques behind this record are really incidental to the illusion I'm trying to present," Oswald emphasises. " People told me to stop listening to the tapes and go to a concert, 'cos live it's a totally different thing. I thought 'I can't soak the cover in acid, so how can I achieve what everybody desires--a record that captures this feeling that Dead concerts are magic?'  So I did things that are unnatural, like have a young Garcia harmonise with an old one, or have an orchestra of multiple Dead musicians, all in order to pump up the sonic experience so that at certain points you think: 'What's happening? Have the drugs kicked in?'".

      "Grayfolded" got a surprisingly positive reception from the Deadhead community (50 thousand sold of  the first disc!); surprisingly, since Deadheads tend to adhere to a Luddite, keep-music-live ethos. Oswald's favourite reaction was from an Internet correspondent "who wrote that 'Grayfolded' made him cry, because it encapsulated 25 years of Garcia, yet it's unreal in a way that gave him a very visceral sensation of it being a ghost."  But even if, like me, you're no Deadhead, "Grayfolded" will leave you mind-blown and spooked-out. 

Monday, October 4, 2021

Throbbing Gristle - first exposure

 the first time I heard TG, when the stuff was reissued on CD as part of Mute's The Grey Area programme of reissues (so circa 1990?)

written for Melody Maker, but for some reason unpublished - mislaid? 








     For those of you for whom "Psychocandy" is the dawn of pop time, it'll be hard to comprehend how unimaginably different the scene was when I was a nipper. Post-punk, we lived in a culture of confrontation, not consolation.  Today, rock groups aim to immerse us in 'dreamtime', simulate the effects of drugs; back then, the goal was to wake us up from our mass culture sleep, rouse us from our zombie addiction to TV and pop.

     Throbbing Gristle were all about confrontation: "confronting all assumptions", testing the outer limits of their audiences' tolerance. They began as an "art-rage" collective called COUM, whose "Prostitution" show at the ICA made front page headlines only a few months before punk. Stepping sideways into music, they modelled themselves as a corporation in order to expose the industrial nature of the pop biz.  Demystification was their modus operandi and raison d'etre (c.f. the mysticism and mystique of 1991 rock).  Live, TG played "disconcerts". The 'music' was a mirror of a world of unremitting ugliness, dehumanisation, and brutalism.  They took the degradation and deterioration, maiming and mutilation, of sound to nether limits that even now have yet to be under-passed. ("Second Annual Report" was recorded on a Sony Cassette Recorder with condenser mike to get a deliberately thin, compressed sound.)

     Along with Cabaret Voltaire, TG invented the "industrial" sound: synth-drones and squelches; hissing, programmed percussion; tape-loops and found sounds; hideously mangled, effects-ridden guitar; creepy vocals. Sometimes TG sound like Loop or Hawkwind liquidised into an ambient puree then played at 16rpm. Later ("20 Jazz Funk Greats", parts of "Heathen Earth"), they explored a different but equally disorientating kind of sound, leaving the noisome aural effluent for clinical, arid, ultra-pristine electronic music. "Tanith" is morose mood muzak, with vibes and a clammy 'jazz' trumpet like an android version of Miles Davis; "What A Day" is a lurching electro-dirge with vocals that whinge in a preposterous Cockernee accent; "Adrenalin" anticipates the serene sterility of ambient house.

     TG also coined the gamut of "industrial" obsessions:serial killers, conspiracy theories, subliminals and brainwashing, etc. Above all, they coined the industrial attitude, a sort of gynecological drive to probe reality and expose the visceral mess behind the facades of everyday life. I use the word "gynecological" because Woman was the privileged victim of all this vivisection: "Slugbait" is a corny tale of a "wicked boy" who pulls a foetus out of a seven months pregnant mother and chew its head off; a later version of the same song features a taped confession by a girlchild-murderer; "Hamburger Lady" goes into gruesome forensic detail about a real-life burns victim.  There's even a song called "We Hate You (Little Girls").  Whatever the ethics of TG's intentions, their work was always going to be easily adopted by twisted retards, pervs and teenage ghouls.

     TG's work did occasionally, perhaps inadvertently, create "beauty" (e.g. the derelict, industrial blues of "Weeping"). But because the aim was to reflect/amplify the monochrome horror of it all, too often these records are simply unendurable, a deadening dead end.  Eventually, Genesis P. Orridge seems to have come to the same conclusion. First, there was "hyperdelia": Psychic TV's rediscovery of colour and flamboyance as expressed in the kaleidoscopic sounds of acid rock and incarnated in the dandyism of Brian "Godstar" Jones (adorning rather than reflecting reality). Then there was "techno acid beat", Jack The Tab's response to the fact that TG's "death factory" of electro-drones and trance-pulses had resurfaced (in acid house) as a pleasure factory.  An orgasmotron, in fact. 

In view of these subsequent developments,  perhaps TG should be remembered as a necessary, but necessarily transitional phase (minimalism, reductionism, negation) before the return to affirmation and expansion. TG will endure, as Jon Savage puts it in his liner notes, as "a reference point and a shudder", but probably not as something people actually listen to much.


Friday, October 1, 2021

two Heads

Talking Heads



Blender, 200?

Preppy foursome decide "funk art, let's dance", create four postpunk

classics in a row, mutate into intermittently inspired pop group, and now

finally get the deluxe box set career wrap-up they've long deserved.

Talking Heads were CBGB staples but they never really fit New York's punk scene. Partly it was because their cleancut image and highbrow gentility stood out amid the leather-jacket fraternity of juvenile delinquent wannabes. Mostly it was because they were making dance music at a time when punk consensus decreed that disco sucked. Crucially, though, Talking Heads didn't sound like honky musicians playing funk with studious fidelity and precision a la Average White Band, so much as they resemble what funk might have sounded like if it had actually been a WASP-y white invention in the first place. In their music, you can hear the urge to get down and get loose struggling with tight-assed neurosis.

Nervous, twitchy, seemingly alienated from his own flesh,  David Byrne physically embodied this tension onstage. Discomfort and detachment also provided the subject of many of his most provocative lyrics. In song after song, he seems squeamish about his own emotions. Like Johnny Rotten, it's almost as though he'd prefer to have "no feelings"  and instead lead a life entirely of the mind, all curiosity and fascination rather than messy passion. "I'm Not in Love," from the second album More Songs about Buildings and Food, is less 10 CC and more Gang of Four ("Love Like Anthrax," specifically). "Why would I want to fall in love?" ponders Byrne."There'll come a day when we won't need love." "No Compassion," from the debut Talking Heads: 77, considers empathy disabling and burdensome: "Other people's problems, they overwhelm my mind". Both albums contain several not-quite love songs, such as "Happy Day," whose line "feel like my heart has a will of its own" suggests a distanced attitude to one's own amorousness.  Yet the sound of 77 and More--Byrne's fluttering rhythm guitar, the crisp 'n' quivery funk of bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison's darting flickers of keyboard--actual feels like butterflies in your stomach.

The title More Songs About Buildings and Food chimed with the New Wave belief that you could and should write about other things apart from relationships or rock's standard-issue rebel scenarios. More than More, though, it's  1979's Fear of Music where Byrne widens his lyrical reach. In "Cities', he assesses the competing charms of various urban environments, while "Animals" is a paranoid curmudgeon's rant about the irresponsibility of all them wild critters. When Byrne does write about love, though, there's still that sense of alienation. In "Mind," he's desperately seeking the magic verbal formula to dissuade his partner from leaving. Mid-song, he abruptly levitates above himself with a wry, self-mocking "and it comes directly from my heart to you," as if trying to escape the fatuity of his own feelings through a sort of out-of-body irony.

Sonically, Fear is astonishingly varied, stretching from the African music/disco/Dadaist poetry fusion of "I Zimbra" to the radically modernized psychedelia of "Drugs". Starting with More Songs and blossoming on Fear, Talking Heads had struck up a fruitful relationship with producer Brian Eno, who helped them develop an ultra-vivid palette of textures and a panoramic sound. By 1980's Remain In Light, the mutually infatuated Byrne and Eno began to resemble a pair of cerebrally over-endowed Siamese twins. Obsessed with African polyrhythms, they convinced the initially compliant band to write in a new way, building layer by layer from multiple bass-pulses, percussion lines, rhythm guitar tics, and graffiti-like smears of synth. Byrne's grail was a tribal music for faithless postmoderns, a trance-dance sound to heal the soul-sick spiritual emptiness evoked in songs like "Houses in Motion". "Listening Wind" goes further, seeing the West from the outside, through the eyes of a terrorist bomber disgusted by American Coca-colonialism.

Having started the Seventies as a key component of Roxy Music, the era's greatest art rock outfit, Eno ended the decade as unofficial fifth member of a group that surpassed Roxy's achievement. But the expansion of Talking Heads sound on Remain caused intolerable strains within the group; Harrison, Weymouth and Frantz smarted from having been virtually relegated to session musicians. To save the band, Byrne agreed to part ways with Eno and revert to the taut tunefulness of  their early days. The fact that Remain was their least commercially successful record (despite spawning an early MTV favorite with the video for "Once In A Lifetime",  one in a series of artful promos) provided further impetus to scale back to versus-chorus-middle-eight strictures. The awkwardly transitional Speaking In Tongues (1983) generated their first real hit, "Burning Down The House," but its jewel was "This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)," an exquisite attempt to write a love song devoid of romantic clichés, full of witty but heartfelt lines: "I'm just an animal looking for a home," "you have a face with a view."

On subsequent albums, though, Byrne's apparent coming to terms with commonplace emotions leads him towards a sentimentalization of the common people, in the process sacrificing much of the tension that gave the group its edge. Paralleling a general mid-Eighties shift towards Americana, Little Creatures (1985) replaced funk with country influences (pedal steel, jingle-jangle finger-picking, and, on "Road To Nowhere," a Cajun march feel). The next album, 1986's True Stories, plunged wholesale into fascination with what we'd nowadays call the red-state heartland--the very place the boho Byrne once scorned in  More Songs' "The Big Country." Looking down (in both senses) on middle America from an airplane window, Byrne had declared "I wouldn't live there if you paid me to" and "it's not even worth talking about those people down there". But now with True Stories' "People Like Us", he seemingly celebrated the apolitical fatalism of ordinary folks with lines like "we don't want freedom/we don't want justice/we just want someone to love".

Naked, the group's 1988 swansong, ended this America First phase, opening the Heads sound to world music influences once again. Instead of  Fela Kuti-style polyrhythms, though, the touchstone for songs like "(Nothing But) Flowers" and "Totally Nude" was the quicksilver guitars of more recent Afropop like the Bhundu Boys. Among the most breezy, beatific songs Talking Heads ever recorded, "Nude" and "Flowers" sounded like the work of a rejuvenated band reaching an unexpected third wind. But the Heads split shortly after its release, and Byrne has vowed they'll never reform.

TALKING HEADS corrals the group's entire oeuvre, crisply remastered and garnished with out-takes (whose highlights include a wonderfully overwrought alternate version of "Mind"). Each album comes with the inevitable second disc of rare video footage plus 5.1 Surroundsound mixes of the LP in question. Rendering redundant 2003's unwieldy Once In A Lifetime box through the double-whammy of comprehensiveness and user-friendliness, TALKING HEADS' s must-own-factor is diminished slightly by having the classic first four albums sit alongside Speaking and True Stories (both unsuccessful even on their own reduced terms). Eno, arguably the crucial X-Factor catalyst for the group's golden era output,  recently claimed that he sees the influence of Talking Heads everywhere. If only it were true! The idiosyncracy and sheer adventurousness of the group's way with song and sound has proved largely inimitable. Okay, over the years, bands--Orange Juice and Meat Puppets in the Eighties, Franz Ferdinand and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah in the Noughties--have picked up on the group's early style, the irresistible jangle-funk of "Pulled Up" and "Found A Job".  But why haven't bands ransacked the Heads oeuvre for the dozens of other tangents spiraling off it? Entire careers--genres even--could have been built off single songs on Fear or Remain. In a sense, then, it could be that Talking Heads richest legacy still lies ahead.

a different earlier take of the same review (for Blender)

Talking Heads



Some reckon “art” and “heart” are incompatible in rock. Alumni of Rhode Island School of Design, Talking Heads often faced accusations of being detached and dispassionate. But the group wrote some of the postpunk period’s most emotive tunes, something abundantly shown by this box set, which holds all eight of their studio albums (remastered and garnished with out-takes) coupled with second discs containing rare video footage plus 5.1 Surroundsound mixes of each LP. It’s just that David Byrne approached lyrics in the same way the group handled the recording process, with a curiosity pitched midway play and research, and an eagerness to avoid the obvious. No wonder the Heads struck up a fruitful relationship with oblique strategist and sound-laboratory scientist Brian Eno for the classic trilogy More Songs About Buildings and Food/Fear of Music/Remain In Light. Having started the Seventies as a key component of Roxy Music, the era’s greatest art rock outfit, Eno ended the decade as unofficial fifth member of the only group to rival Roxy’s achievement. 

Talking Heads were CBGB staples but they never really fit with New York punk’s leather-jacket fraternity of juvenile delinquent wannabes. The group’s  image was cleancut and its crisp, funk-inflected sound couldn’t have been further from Ramones-style buzzsaw chord-pummel, while Byrne’s lyrics avoided rebel rock clichés, even celebrating office-drone conformism in “Don’t Worry About the Government.”  Talking Heads: 77 teems with honey-drizzling melody and tinkling textures. 1978’s More Songs  thickens the sound and hottens up the groove.  Tina Weymouth’s bass is the mad-catchy melodic voice on “Found a Job”, while Jerry Harrison’s keyboards give “Take Me To the River” its famous aquatic feel. 

Astonishingly varied, Fear of Music is pulled every-which-way at once, toward Afro-Dada disco on “I Zimbra” and a radically modernized version of psychedelia on “Drugs”. Byrne’s lyrics don’t stint on inventiveness either. In “Mind”, he’s a desperate lover seeking the magic verbal formula to dissuade his partner from leaving (“I need something to change your mind”, except “you’re not even LISTENING to me”) while on “Animals” he method-acts a paranoid curmudgeon ranting about the irresponsibility of all them wild critters.  

By Remain In Light, Byrne and Eno operated almost like a pair of cerebrally over-endowed Siamese twins. Increasingly infatuated with African music, they shepherded the initially compliant Heads towards a deconstructed band-sound, built up layer by layer from multiple bass-pulses, percussion lines, rhythm guitar micro-riffs, and graffiti-like flourishes of synth, and achieving coherence only through the process of editing and mixing. Byrne’s grail was a postmodern tribal music for faithless Westerners, a trance-dance sound to heal the neurosis and spiritual emptiness evoked elsewhere on Remain with “Once In A Lifetime,” “Houses In Motion,” and “The Overload.”  Rediscover the body, reintegrate with Nature, stop making sense. Or as Byrne would plead in a later song, “God, help us lose our minds”. 

But the expansion of the Talking Heads sound put intolerable strains on the group,  with Harrison, Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz effectively relegated to session musicians and Remain coming together at the mixing desk, helmed by guess-who. To save the band, Byrne reluctantly agreed to part ways with Eno and embrace the shapely economy of pop. Speaking In Tongues generated the group’s first real hit with "Burning Down The House" but its true jewel was "This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)," an exquisite attempt to write a love song devoid of romantic clichés, full of witty but heartfelt lines: “I’m just an animal looking for a home,” “you have a face with a view”.  Little Creatures reversed the advances of the Eno years, backtracking to the taut tunefulness of the group circa 1977. It abandoned the overcrowded dancefloor of mainstream Eighties pop and replaced da funk with country influences (pedal steel, jingle-jangle finger-picking, and, on “Road To Nowhere,” a Cajun march feel). Accompanying Byrne’s debut movie, True Stories saw the singer plunge into an ambivalent fascination with heartland America, a place he’d once scorned in More Songs’ “The Big Country” with the stinging “I wouldn’t live there if you paid me”.  "People Like Us" depicted the apolitical fatalism of ordinary folk, the lines "we don't want freedom/we don't want justice/we just want someone to love" leaving it unclear whether the song was critique or celebration. Naked completed the circle for Talking Heads, fusing their "American" and "African" sides. Instead of Fela Kuti-style polyrhythms, though, the touchstone for songs like "(Nothing But) Flowers" and "Totally Nude" was the quicksilver euphoria of guitarists like King Sunny Ade, while Byrne soared like Roy Orbison over lithe percussion. The better Naked songs sound like a rejuvenated Heads reaching their third wind, but the group split up shortly after its release. 

There’ s few trajectories more unlikely in pop history than the one taken by Talking Heads, who started out with the proposition “funk art, let’s dance,” stretched rock form to its dizzy limit on Remain In Light, and then mutated into one of the big pop groups of the early  MTV era, thanks to their always artful promos.  Of all the New York New Wave-era bands, they were just about the only one to get anywhere, both commercially and in the sense of sonic adventure. So hats off to the Heads.