Monday, December 26, 2022

Brian Eno on his music for film and television

BRIAN ENO interview

Sight and Sound, Winter 2020/2021

by Simon Reynolds

Brian Eno has been fascinated by the relationship between film and music for nearly half a century. In the early Seventies, he started buying soundtrack albums, in particular Nino Rota’s Fellini scores. The open-ended quality of film music when heard separate from the visuals became a kind of aesthetic ideal, encouraging Eno to drift away from the song forms of his early solo albums towards the sonic watercolours of Another Green World and then onto the instrumental moodscapes of his ambient records.

“Listening to soundtracks changed my ideas about what music was allowed to be,” says Eno via Zoom from his second home in Norfolk, where he’s been sequestered during the pandemic. After leaving Roxy Music in 1973, he and engineer Rhett Davies would work in the recording studio all day. “Just before it was time to go home, I’d say, ‘let’s do the film mix’. And that meant ‘take this material somewhere else’.  We might remove most of the main elements – the voice, or the drums - leaving a few elements that were now suspended in space. We might change the speed, slow it right down, or put a really long reverb on the sounds.  We never spent very long on ‘the film mix’ but often, at home later, I’d think, ‘that was the best thing we did today’”.

In 1976, some of these ‘film mixes’ were collated for an LP Eno pressed up in a limited edition of 500 and sent out to screen production companies as a “use me please” calling card. Two years later, the album was officially released, with a slightly different track list, as Music For Films. “If you listen carefully, you’ll notice there’s tracks from Another Green World but slowed down to one-third speed,” Eno laughs.

By 1978, Eno had already scored a “truly terrible horror movie” titled, in the U.K., The Devil’s Men, and  formed a productive collaboration with Derek Jarman.  Used in Sebastiane, “Final Sunset” is the only track from Music for Films that also appears on his new career-spanning collection Film Music 1976-2020. Ranging from a lovely rendition of  “You Don’t Miss Your Water”, the William Bell soul song best known in its countrified version by The Byrds, to the glitchy disorientation of “Design As Reduction”, a piece made for a documentary about Dieter Rams, the seventeen tracks have been sifted from some 180 projects for movies and television Eno completed over the past four decades.

Always an early adopter, Eno realized a long time ago that film work might be one of the main avenues through which an experimental musician like himself could get exposure and sustain a livelihood.  In recent years, the insatiable appetite on the part of the new streaming services for adventurous television has fostered an equally strong demand for adventurous sounds, making the music supervisor an increasingly creative and crucial figure. It’s been a godsend for musicians impacted by the erosion of record sales, especially the kind of musician who can’t rely on live performance as an alternate source of  revenue.

“It’s one of the places that people can do things that wouldn’t ever get played on the radio,” says Eno.  “As a composer in the popular music world, you’re always fighting to get anything heard if it doesn’t have a song or a beat.  Films are the place where suddenly all the things you  dreamed about doing, they can be done.  It’s true  for orchestral music too. Most orchestral music that is recorded now is for films. Quite a few studios, like AIR in London, survive pretty much on recording big orchestras for movies.”

Eno estimates that 15 percent of his income comes from film and TV work. Sometimes this will be commissioned;  other times it’ll be the use of a piece from one of his earlier records. In one case, included on the new collection,  it was both: “Deep Blue Day” was originally made for Al Reinert’s 1989 moon landing documentary For All Mankind, but is better known from its 1996 repurposing in Trainspotting, where its dreamy drift incongruously accompanies the junkie Renton’s dive into a toilet bowl to recover some opium suppositories. 

“Deep Blue Day” and the other For All Mankind pieces actually came out several years before the Reinert documentary reached screens, as the 1984 album Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks. “The story Reinert told me that got me really excited about the project was about how each of the astronauts was allowed to bring one cassette with them, to listen to during the considerable down time you have traveling through space. Nearly all of them chose country & western music. I found this so charming - people right at the cutting edge of technology, pioneers at the edge of the frontier, playing what was basically Earth frontier music.”  That idea led Eno and his collaborators (his brother Roger and U2 co-producer Daniel Lanois) to the sound of “Deep Blue Day,”  which entwined shimmering ribbons of pedal steel guitar around a slowed-down Western Swing rhythm, a preset on a device called the Omnichord. Without that snippet of information from Reinert, says Eno, the soundtrack would probably have consisted of “just space music” -  amorphous, abstract, absolutely predictable. “It gave us a completely different direction.”

Starting with a kernel of inspiration is how Eno likes to approach composing for film. “Quite often, I will get started on it before I’ve seen anything at all. Before I’ve even read the script. I’ll just have heard the briefest description.” Although he’ll sometimes stick photographs of the movie set (as with Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones) or still images (NASA shots from the lunar missions, with For All Mankind) up on the studio wall, Eno never writes to the film itself. The idea of composing music  tailored to precise allotments of time or specific scenes is alien to him. If anything, he’ll operate the other way around, generating a large number of underscores and inviting the film makers to pick as they see fit.   

Eno goes one step further with his music for Series 4 of Top Boy, the formerly Channel 4, now Netflix drama about gang life on an East London council estate. “That’s what I was working on this morning. They start shooting next week and this time we’ve decided to try having the music available when they’re shooting. They can use it as a scene setter.” He pauses and chuckles wryly. “We’ll see how that works out.”



“I haven’t been watching much at all, but I do like this Japanese program, Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories [MBS / Netflix]. It has such an unusual mood. It’s all set in a small Tokyo restaurant that opens from midnight until 7-AM.  Each episode is only half-an-hour long and it’s essentially one person’s tale - some odd little story of life, often nothing dramatic. There’s something so calmly human about it. It’s extremely heartwarming and comforting.  Everything is at kind of a slow pace. And the production values look like a film I could have made. I don’t think there’s any music in the program itself aside from this song at the beginning of each episode ["Omoide (思ひで)", by Ludens].  A song in Japanese, sung by this rather faltering male voice. There’s something so touching about it, because it’s not a  polished, pro voice. Well, he may be a great pro singer for all I know, but somehow he’s managed to project this persona of real innocence. It’s beguiling. The song is such a great mood setter for the program.” 

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

RIP Terry Hall

The Specials reissues

Uncut, May 2002

"This ain't a track, it's a movement," proclaim The Streets on their recent 2-step-meets-2-Tone tune 'Let's Push Things Forward'. There are songs so potently and provocatively original they do seem to demand the formation of a subculture around them. But 'Gangsters', the Specials' 1979 debut, has got to be one of the very few cases where this literally happened: seemingly overnight and out of nowhere, an entire scene of ska bands assembled itself in response.

That may not have been Jerry Dammers' masterplan, but he was consciously attempting to create a brand new sound. Having already tried to merge punk with contemporary roots reggae and come a cropper owing to the hard-to-bridge difference in tempo and feel, Dammers decided to wind back the clock to reggae's precursors, ska and rocksteady; their speedy pace and jerky rhythm guitar chops were more compatible with new wave angularity. 2-Tone arrived at just the right moment: the arty vanguard of post-punk (PiL, The Pop Group etc) was preoccupied with dub's spacey sound and apocalyptic dread, leaving a gap in the market for an uptempo and upful punky-reggae sound. Defined by trebly, 7-inch brevity rather than bass-heavy 12-inch expanse (a la Metal Box), 2-Tone was populist and radio-friendly, yet its black-white hybridity and mixed-race bands were a perfect fit with the progressive RAR politics of the day.

For all its outward appearance of fun and energy, though, what's striking about The Specials is how grim the music's world view mostly is — a stance of sullen disaffection embodied in singer Terry Hall's unblinking eyes and perpetual scowl. Songs like 'Too Much Too Young' (a venomous diatribe addressed to an ex-girlfriend who's lost her youth to early motherhood) and 'Concrete Jungle' (a snapshot of '79 street life, a boom year for racial attacks and random violence) recall the desolate monochrome vistas and dosed-off options depicted in Sixties social realist films like Saturday Night And Sunday Morning and Kes.

Grey was always simultaneously The Specials' forte and fault — those lugubrious trombones! From its colour cover (featuring some band members actually smiling!) to its new sonic flavours (Dammers had become infatuated with muzak). More Specials was a bid to move forward and leave behind the legion of clones. Elvis Costello's sparse, near-mono production on the debut aimed to capture the band's legendarily electric live performances; now Dammers had fallen in love with the studio, an ultimately ruinous passion.

It's easy to see why the pork pie massive were puzzled and pissed off by the sudden depletion of energy on More Specials, but Dammers' new penchant for arrangement and production pays off with brilliant songs, like 'Stereotypes' (all Dr Zhivago-like balalaikas) and 'International Jet Set' (Casio-rhumba riddims and whirling Wurlitzer that stage the EZ listening revival 15 years ahead of schedule).

A Heaven's Gate-style financial calamity, 1984's In The Studio feels fatally sapped by its protracted gestation (three years, hence the album's wry title). Although Hall's only writing credit on the first two albums was More Specials' nuclear armageddon-themed 'Man At C&A', a crucial proportion of the band's spirit — its bleak, black humour — seems to have disappeared when he left for Fun Boy Three along with Neville Staple and Lynval Golding. Apart from the sinuous-melodied, mischievous 'What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend', the dominant mood is sanctimonious, especially the GLC-friendly protest-pop singles 'Racist Friend' and 'War Crimes'. In The Studio sounds literally studious, a series of meticulous and joy-drained genre exercises, sedate and sedative. 

                                                            "I'm the man in grey... and I don't have a say"

                                                                                     The wounds of class

                                                                "Nothing ever change..."

For the longest while, 2-Tone seemed like a sealed-off pocket in Britpop time: it vaporised as abruptly as it arrived, leaving little legacy apart from America's ill-advised ska-revival revival. But echoes pop up in the oddest places. Samples from 'Monkey Man' and 'Friday Night, Saturday Morning' graced underground rave anthems by Bodysnatch and 4 Hero. Tricky is a huge admirer of Terry Hall, and had him guest on the Nearly God album. Dammers' film score-steeped, sepia-toned sound circa More Specials and 'Ghost Town' is an unacknowledged precursor to Portishead circa 'Sour Times'. And there's a definite ska feel that crops up repeatedly in 2-step garage, from Doolally's 'Straight From The Heart' in 1998 to this year's 'Too Much Brandy' and 'Push Things Forward' by The Streets. 2-Tone's mood-blend of jaunty and glum — a dancefloor hemmed in by desperation on all sides — has perennial appeal and resonance.

4 Hero sampling "Friday Night, Saturday Morning"

                                                                   Tired Eyes remix!

Snippet from the start of "Monkey Man" goading alla the bouncer man appears in this Bodysnatch oddity "Revenge of the Punter" 

A whole post on hardcore continuum / 2 Tone intersections.

This tune from the Specials comeback album is rather good 

Friday, December 2, 2022

Kanye, "the Black Bowie"

So it is revealed that KW originally wanted to give his 2018 album Ye the title  Hitler.  Which inevitably brings to mind David Bowie's "I think I might have been a bloody good Hitler. I'd be an excellent dictator" comment from 1976.  Apparently in a 2015 business meeting Kanye also described Hitler as a "marketing genius", which mirrors Bowie's impressed comments about Goebbel's skills in the advertising / propaganda realm and Hitler's as master showman who "staged a country". 

Here below is a review of Pablo where I do the West / Bowie comparison.

But first, crikey, look here's a piece from 2011 on Kanye comparing himself to Hitler! Apparently at the Big Chill Festival, he said this to the audience: "I walk through the hotel and I walk down the street, and people look at me like I’m ... insane, like I’m Hitler. One day the light will shine through, and one day people will understand everything I ever did." The LA Times journo consults a psychologist and psychiatrist, who posit plausibly that "For Kanye West to compare himself to Hitler in that way, it suggests a certain level of narcissism. To empathize with someone responsible for the deaths of millions of people, it can indicate a lack of sensitivity to how other people are going to feel about your comments. And, again, it can be a sign of narcissism.’ and ‘Kanye West’s referencing of Hitler is about narcissism and identifying with people in positions of power." 

Not that you need professionals to diagnose narcissistic personality disorder - you just have to listen to the records. 


The Life of Pablo
The Wire, April 2016

by Simon Reynolds

A journalist recently asked me whether I agreed with his thesis that the Rock Star is a dying breed – literally dying off, with high-profile 2016 extinctions like Bowie and Lemmy. My thought was that if you understand rock narrowly as electric-guitar music, then yes, resources are depleting rapidly; it’s a minority-interest sound now, incapable of supporting mythic-scale personalities. 

But think of “rock star” in a less tethered-to-genre way and it’s surely obvious that the archetype is alive and kicking elsewhere. Above all, rap is where you’ll find that public theatre of ego-drama, unbridled excess, and artistic over-reach, the car-crash personalities and epic sagas of anti-heroism.  If Future is our era’s Iggy – vocal tone of pained ecstasy, lust-for-life turned toxic - then Kanye West amply fills the Bowie role. There’s the same torturously conflicted relationship with fame, the same restless chasing of the cutting edge balanced by a compulsion to command the centre stage of pop culture.  

Like Bowie, West is a mediatician as much as a musician.  So while the audio content of his seventh album intersects with the soundworlds of TriAngle or LuckyMe, it doesn’t make sense to approach The Life of Pablo in the way that 98% of the releases covered in this magazine get treated – as a primarily audio experience. Pablo resists being disentangled from the vortex of discourse - gossip, leaks, forensic analysis, public melt-downs - that imbricates its every texture and lyric.  Tempting as it is to hack exasperatedly away at the thicket of context and subtext – from the month-long cavalcade of “spaz in the news Kanye” (to quote a lyric from the album) to the way that virtually every sound and line seems hyperlinked – in order to get through to the Work itself, the truth is that the surrounding swirl is the Work, or at least an outer but un-detachable layer to it.

The fact that there’s no solid-form incarnation of Pablo, that the album can only be heard as a stream from the hi-fidelity streaming service Tidal, practically incites you to listen connectively, with other windows open on your browser: checking reviews, consulting rap-nerd annotation sites, monitoring Twitter and Facebook reactions. This is Pablo’s, and Kanye’s, proper domain: the hubbub of the internet.

Pablo is an Event, then. But it’s also an assemblage of moments, aesthetic decisions, accumulated over three years of studio work (with a few elements dating even further back, to the 2010 sessions for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: the album before the previous album).  How could a coherent vibe possibly emerge from such a piecemeal process? The simple answer is that it hasn’t.  It’s not just that this album as a  (not-)whole feels loosely collated and arbitrarily sequenced. Many individual tracks seem like they could easily dis-assemble into constituent parts – there’s a segmental feel to the way that guest raps, vocal cameos, samples, intros and codas slot into their provisionally allotted place. You sense a governing logic of additive and subtractive unrest that has yet to subside. West tweaked tracks up to the last minute and indeed beyond the last minute. It’s conceivable that there will never be a definitive shape to The Life of Pablo.

The album’s mode of construction invites deconstruction: breakdowns of the credits, inventories of samples, a fever of instant-response exegesis.   This is how we tend to envisage creativity operating these days: as recreativity, the marshalling of influences,  allusions, evocations, self-reflexive references. Kanye is an exemplar of the modern ideal of the curator as creator. He rose to fame through deft use of samples, often amounting simply to re-presenting the music of others with his lyrics over the top and a turbo-boosted beat underneath. That technique felt inspired and glorious on the Chaka Khan-lifting “Through the Wire”, his debut solo smash in 2004; it felt empty and crass with the Curtis Mayfield-molesting “Touch the Sky” and Daft Punk-depleting “Stronger.”  Pablo is littered with startling sample-choices, but who even knows if Kanye, a man over-extended on multiple fronts, actually found them all? Perhaps he’s now obliged to delegate tasks like this to his diffuse squad of producers, what’s been described as the Kanye Think Tank.

Just as Pablo dismantles the conventional understanding of the Album as a finished work, authorship becomes moot here as well.  “Famous” is typical, crediting no less than sixteen writers (although some of these are the composers of the samples) and eight producers. It’s a drastically racheted-up version of the way Bowie made records, except that each of his albums drew on a finite team of players and a single producer or co-producer. Here, each individual song deploys a different line-up.

As you’d expect, then, Pablo is bitty. It’s an album of good bits and shit bits, all jumbled together. Nearly every song contains at least one great sound or rhythm idea. In “Famous,” it’s a sequence of what sounds like electro-Bollywood, but is actually Eighties dancehall queen Sister Nancy. In “Feedback”, it’s a gnarly loop distantly related to an Iranian disco song by Googoosh. In “FML”, it’s Section 25’s “Hit” drastically reprocessed into a psychedelic dirge of fluorescent bass and gargoyle vox.  Other delights come from guest collaborators or producers, like the too-brief interlude of Laurie Anderson-like cyborg chorale from composer Caroline Shaw in “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2,” or the lachrymose texture-swirls and echo-misted beat of “Real Friends,” built by Frank Jukes and Boi-1da.     
But every good bit is marred by its proximity to a shit bit, and nine times out of ten, the latter involves a gross sentiment or a mewling, sloppy delivery emitted from the brain and mouth of West himself.  Perhaps the most grating adjacency of beauty and beastly is “30 Hours”, where the blurry-souled mumble of Arthur Russell from World of Echo is accompanied by the self-regard and spite of a Kanye punch-drunk in the media echo-chamber.  After a swipe at an ex’s supposedly fading looks and a  jab about a blow job being better than having no job, the song degenerates into barely written drivel barely synched to the beat – the seeming off-the-cuff realism underlined by the interruption of a cellphone call and Kanye’s mumbled “I’m just doing an album track right now.”  

Pablo grips your attention through an attraction-repulsion effect: the attraction largely pertaining to the sonics, the repulsion manifesting almost entirely in the lyrics. Despite the album’s disparate provenance and huge cast list, Kanye’s personality is overpoweringly present, oozing from every pore of the record. If there’s a thematic, it’s spiritual unrest and a longing for wholeness. Fractured and insatiable, Kanye confesses “I just wanna feel liberated” - freed from his own self, from the chains of appetite and vanity.   At his core is a hungry hole that can be filled not by trophies and transient thrills but by God’s love alone.

Kanye has touted Pablo as a gospel album (its original working title was So Help Me God) and as a musical form gospel pops up several times, mostly early on. Featuring a squeaky-voiced 4-year old preacher and swells of choir, opener “Ultralight Beam” pleads for serenity and sanctuary. “‘Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1,” the next track, uses samples from a 1976 gospel record by Pastor T.L. Barret and Youth for Christ from West’s hometown Chicago. “Low Lights” takes a long passage of female testifying about the Lord’s inspirational power from “So Alive”, a track by house producer Kings of Tomorrow. Not for the first time, I was struck by the childish conception of the Almighty that seems to figure in hip hop: no trace of the Old Testament God of Thou Shalt Not, or the New Testament God who warns that the rich will have a tough time getting into heaven. This is a forgiving and indulgent deity, who offers ego-reinforcement and motivational uplift, unsurprisingly close to the all-American God who figures in prosperity theology a/k/a the gospel of wealth. 

Entreaties to the Sky Daddy have featured in Kanye’s work from the start. “Jesus Walks”, on the debut The College Dropout, introduced his “at war with myself” shtick: torn in twain ‘tween venality and virtue, lowly libido and higher purpose. Except it didn’t seem like shtick then; it felt strikingly original. West continued to present himself as a divided soul – most movingly on Late Registration’s exquisite “Addicted” – and opened up the terrain occupied by the likes of Kendrick Lamar with songs like “Bitch, Don’t’ Kill My Vibe” (where Lamar identifies as a sinner while admitting “I’m probably gonna sin again”). A secular version of this woozy confusion came from Drake,who became a  superstar by reveling in the fruits of fame and fortune while simultaneously complaining about the hollow-inside tristesse that followed.

These self-medicating and self-loathing (never enough to change or stop, of course) MCs constitute a late phase of rap I think of as its decadence. Where hip hop once thrilled with the barbarian rapacity of its hunger for success, now the genre – all conquering, sated – succumbs to a sickly malaise of self-doubt and overshared “sensitivity”. An inner void has become virtually a status symbol, like being player-hated once was: the true mark of having triumphed now is to feel like the treasure is worthless.

Kanye pioneered this brand of anhedonic numbness, complaining about feeling unreal when he sees himself on TV in the “Pinocchio Story,” the mawkish finale to his emo-rap album 808s & Heartbreak.  As the listener ventures deeper into Pablo, the gospel concept dissolves both musically and thematically: the sonics are suggestive by turns of IDM, trap, and “21st Century hipster”, and lyrically any striving for higher ground gives way to the profane fare of paranoia and self-pity.  “Famous” is supposedly Kanye  “breaking-up” with Fame, (a temptress personified here by Rihanna) but he still manages to squeeze in some instantly-infamous jibes at Taylor Swift along with a legion of haters “mad they still nameless.” “Feedback” confesses “I’ve been out of my mind a long time” only to brandish that fact as support to his claim to be a modern Picasso: “name one genius that ain’t crazy.” “Real Friends” recycles laments first aired on 808s about the impossibility of leading a normal life: back then it involved a relative’s wedding and having to leave before they cut the cake, here it’s about always being in a hurry and not knowing how old his friends’s children are. The only new element is the dissing of a cousin who stole West’s laptop.

That crime and the “dirty motherfucker” responsible crop up a second time on “No More Parties in LA”, one of Pablo’s most cohesive and enjoyably groovy tracks: a Dilla-like throwback to underground rap’s hyno-loop aesthetic, with Madlib producing and guest verses from Kendrick Lamar. One sample source is “Suzy Thundertussy”, Junie Morrison’s funk track about a super groupie.  The original song starts with the line “Los Angeles is a lonely sort of place”, but in “No More Parties”, the first two words - Morrison’s oozily enunciated “Los Angeles”  - is turned into a recurrent refrain that sounds like “lost in lust” or, even more mystically, “lost in lost”. Like Lamar’s own “Swimming Pools”, the song sounds dissolute, the parties blurring into each other in a memory-haze of Hollywood Hills decadence. More than anything, “No More Parties” reminds me of “Hotel California” and Don Henley solo songs like “The Last Worthless Evening”: rock stars having their coke and critiquing it.  

Since at least 808s & Heartbreak being a Kanye West fan has resembled a dysfunctional relationship where one partner keeps pushing the other away, constantly testing their limits. Where Drake exists “somewhere between psychotic and iconic,” the discomfort zone for Kanye is somewhere between mess and messianic, desperation and despotism. An asshole who knows he’s an asshole and tells you he’s an asshole - “a 38-year-old 8-year-old with rich nigga problems” is how he self-diagnoses on “No More Parties” - is still an asshole. Even if he keeps managing to find ever more audaciously upfront and often laugh-out-loud ways -- on this album, “I Love Kanye” -  of telling you that.  

Equal parts scattershot genius and splattershit grotesquerie, Life of Pablo is a reminder of rap’s enduring paradox:  here’s an entertainment form based on personalities that in real life you would avoid like the plague - monologists, braggarts, slimeball lechers, pullers of rank.  You wouldn’t want to be with these people; you wouldn’t want to be these people. To circle back to the start, that then raises the question:  why do we need rock stars? (The “we” is rhetorical: I know many, perhaps most readers of this magazine either never felt such a need or have long out-grown it). At one point, there was interest and even illumination to gleaned from watching their megalo-melodrama from afar. Their misadventures and vision-quests made exhibitionist art out of the paradoxes and impasses of “living without limits” (as West phrases it on the most haunting song here, “FML” - an acronym for Fuck My Life).  Stars showed how ascending to that scale of freedom could become its own trap.  But we’ve seen this story acted out too many times. Fame-as-pathology, fame-as-catastrophe – it’s a script now.

Pablo’s final song “Fade” pivots around some classic house music samples -- Hardrive’s “Deep Inside,” Mr Fingers’s “Mystery of Love”- along with two different versions of “(I Know) I’m Losing You”  by Rare Earth and Undisputed Truth.  Guest Ty Dolla $ign voices what sounds like Kanye’s personal plaint about needing attention to feel alive: “When no one ain’t around... Ain’t nobody watchin’... I just fade away”. When Barbara Tucker’s wondrous vocal lick from the Hardrive track – “deep deep down inside” – enters, it sounds blurrily processed, probably indecipherably so for listeners unfamiliar with the original garage anthem. I hear it as “deep deep down I’m stuck”. That’s Kanye West and that’s pop culture in 2016. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Harold Budd tribute

Harold Budd tribute

December 10 2020, NPR Music

Some artists veer wildly between styles from record to record. And then there are those who discover their sonic identity and stick with it, hardly straying from the true path they’ve settled on. Their life’s work is the patient art of inflecting and perfecting.

Harold Budd belongs in this second category of artists, those for whom musical style isn’t something you can put on and take off like a costume, but a truth that comes from deep within the self that you discover and distill.  Over the course of his four-decade discography, Budd’s music floated between ambient, minimalist composition, and dreampop,  but ultimately evaded those categories to gently assert itself as a wholly individual voice. Cherished by a devoted group of fans and admired by his musical collaborators such as Brian Eno, Cocteau Twins and XTC’s Andy Partridge, Budd’s slow, tranquil compositions centered around his own piano playing. The Los Angeles-based musician died earlier this week from complications caused by covid-19, just a few days after testing positive. He was 84.  

Budd did not have many colors, but he was their master, as the saying goes. The primary hue in his palette was a snowy-white piano texture so smudged with soft pedal and sustain that it’s like hearing Erik Satie through a blizzard. When his melodies wander into the higher octaves, the twinkling tone is so pure and idyllic, it verges on translucent. Across the 30-plus records he made solo and in collaboration, he played other instruments – electric keyboards, synthesizers, early samplers like the Synclavier – but the acoustic piano remained at the heart of his sound. “The way I work is that I focus entirely on a small thing and try to milk that for all it’s worth, to find everything in it that makes musical sense,” Budd explained in a 1997 interview with Sound on Sound. The trouble with the modern recording studio with all its hi-tech options was that “ it gives you the freedom to do everything, and to me everything is a tyranny.”


Harold Budd started out as a drummer—which is funny, since his discography is marked by the absence of backbeat and rarely has any percussive element at all. Born in LA in 1936, then raised in the Mojave desert town of Victorville, he became bebop mad as a teenager and later rubbed shoulders with Albert Ayler when they were both in the army. Gradually Budd’s interest shifted towards the cooler kinds of West Coast jazz. Then, while studying music theory at college, his head was turned around by a lecture given by John Cage, there to talk up his 1961 book Silence.

Budd’s first forays into composition were Cage-damaged and modish in the Sixties style: scores that consisted of graphics or brief, open-ended instructions, a 24-hour long performance for gong. Using a Buchla synth, he recorded a droning Terry Riley-like piece called “The Oak of the Golden Dreams” that decades later appeared on – and provided the title of – a joint record with electronic composer Richard Maxfield.

Soon enough Budd turned away from both the post-John Cage American school of chance and reduction and from the stern, sombre atonality of Europeans like Boulez – the two dominant approaches in the post-war music academy.  Instead, he committed himself to what he would later describe as “an ethic of loveliness…  It was a political action. I was consciously dissociating myself, and becoming antagonistic toward the American avant garde.” 

That meant deliberately pursuing music that was “so sweet and pretty and decorative” that it would actively offend his erstwhile peers. The first fruit of Budd’s dissidence against dissonance was a 1972 piece influenced by Renaissance music entitled “Madrigals of the Rose Angel”. Somehow a tape of a live performance of a concert including that piece found its way to the ears of British composer Gavin Bryars, who played it to Brian Eno. He in turn phoned up Budd and invited him to come to the U.K. to make a record. “I owe him everything,” Budd once said of the surprise call from Eno.  “He changed my life in a way that was extraordinary.”

Budd’s debut album, The Pavilion of Dreams, came out in 1978 on Obscure, an imprint Eno set up through Island Records to direct attention onto left-field musicians he admired who were starving for an outlet, including then unknown composers like Bryars and Michael Nyman, and experimentalists like David Toop.  Pavilion was swiftly followed in 1980 by The Plateaux of Mirror, a full-blown collaboration with Eno recorded in a Hamilton, Ontario studio part-owned by a brilliant young sound engineer by name of Daniel Lanois.

The Plateaux of Mirror became the second release in the Eno-conceived Ambient series, after Music For Airports. Eno’s contribution was literally to create the ambience out of which the music emerged, using delays, reverbs, and other effects. “I would set up a sound,” Eno recalled, then Budd would improvise the melodies in response. As Budd put it, “I'm listening to the atmosphere at the same time that I'm playing so that the treatment influences what I play.” The result of the symbiosis between the two was an intensely visual soundscape that lived up to titles like “First Light”, “An Arc of Doves”, and “Among Fields of Crystal”. But the music’s effect isn’t just a synesthetic trigger to mind’s eye reveries. It’s physiological too: listening, you find yourself breathing deeper and slower. Time dilates – each moment glistens like a pearl catching the light as it revolves in front of your eyes.

Like many musicians, Budd disliked categories – “ambient” made him uncomfortable, and he was positively scathing about “New Age”, describing the concept as “distasteful,” a mere “marketing ploy” that smacked of kitschy “science fiction religion”. Still, the positioning of his work in those terms didn’t hurt when it came to reaching audiences. If the idea of music being healing or therapeutic didn’t appeal to Budd, his music’s meditational inwardness and the way that it activated visual imagery, through its sound but also titles like “Abandoned Cities” or “Ice Floes in Eden,” put it in proximity to the aims and effects of both ambient and the more interesting figures in New Age.   

Titles were something of a Budd forte. He wrote poetry and this facility with imagistic language led him to generate a large number of titles for music pieces long before he had composed them. "Very frequently, I carry them around like baggage,” Budd revealed in one interview. “I often can't wait to find a piece so I can get rid of a title because it's been haunting me for so long." In the liner notes for the reissue of his 1981 album The Serpent (In Quicksilver), he wrote of being inspired by “the image of a lethal viper gliding glacially in a pond of mercury… it’s what you see at the end of time.”

In 1984, Budd, Eno and Lanois reprised their Plateaux synergy with The Pearl, another peak in all three men’s careers.  If the Eno connection brought Budd an audience he’d never imagined reaching, a whole other swathe of listeners discovered him through his 1986 collaboration with Cocteau Twins, the Scottish trio whose intricately-textured rhapsodies floated somewhere between eerie Goth and enchanted shoegaze.  Released on the Cocteaus’ label, 4AD, clad in an exquisite sleeve by designer Vaughan Oliver and photographer Nigel Grierson, The Moon and the Melodies was credited to Harold Budd, Elisabeth Fraser, Robin Guthrie, Simon Raymonde. Gorgeous tunes like “Eyes Are Mosaics” sung by Fraser in her liquid chirrup sat alongside diaphanous instrumentals such as “Memory Gongs,” as blurry as a watercolor with a little too much water in it. That tune reappeared very slightly altered and with a different title, “Flowered  Knife Shadows” on Budd’s solo album of 1986, Lovely Thunder. 

Budd collaborated frequently across his career, often finding the most sympatico partners in the U.K. and Europe. He made albums with Hector Zazou, XTC’s Andy Partridge, John Foxx, and Bill Nelson; he teamed up repeatedly with Cocteau guitarist Robin Guthrie (their last collaboration, Another Flower, came out this summer).  Japan’s David Sylvian and Steve Jansen coaxed him out of mid-2000s retirement,  putting out Budd’s albums Avalon Sutra and Perhaps on their label Samadhisound.  

Despite this proclivity for building artistic relationships based in mutual trust and warm friendship,  Budd primarily steered a lone course. Alongside the pair of Eno projects, the characteristic core of his work are the solo records, albums like Abandoned Cities, Lovely Thunder, The White Arcades, and Luxa. These are records that not only refute the idea that artists ought to develop, they in some profound way challenge the idea of progress itself, hinting that the true goal of art is to achieve suspension from time altogether. 


Pulling together a quick turnaround tribute puts you in a mind state that couldn’t be further from what Harold Budd’s music is all about. Every so often, amid the frenetic collating of information and quotation, the sifting and sequencing, I had to remind myself to take a deep breath and listen to the wordless wisdom contained in his sound. 

Although its aura is ethereal and unworldly, Budd’s music is actually an exemplary form of humanly useful music. When the mundane urgencies of life, or the shit and nonsense of our political culture, get you frazzled, which is pretty much every day these days, you can put on this music and imbibe its stillness and grace. His records are exactly the kind of music you’d play for calm and solace during a bereavement – or at a service sending someone to their final resting place. Harold Budd sounds like heaven on earth.


Facts I wish I had known so that I could have included in the piece

That he taught himself to play the piano in his late thirties, in order to be able the music he wished to compose. 

Things Harold said

"Being immediately pretty is the most important component."

"I really like to find as much life as possible in the smallest amount of material. A very simple scale, a relationship of note against note, especially a sustained note; I milk everything for all it's worth."

"One of the things was I got profoundly upset and bored to death with the avant-garde music that was being practiced around the world—the Western world—at that time. It seemed self-congratulatory, and for a small cadre of snobs, and I refused to go on with it."

"I really minimalised myself out of a career"

 I cannot play the piano. I can play what I play, I can play me, but I have a dyslexia when reading music. I’m not a professional musician. I hack away at it and the piano is convenient. By no means would a proper pianist consider me one.”

"I slipped back into discovering something that no-one else was doing, or was likely to do in the very near future. I divorced myself from modern music in a sense, and began to develop a language which I thought was honest to God me, and totally outside of competition with my fellow composers.”

"I admire painters very much and I secretly wish that I were doing that"

"“Brilliant blasts of colour that simply engulfed you” - on Mark Rothko, Ellesworth Kelly, and other painters he admired. 

"It's curious about The Plateaux of Mirror. It came so quickly and so easily that it was kind of a phantom"

"This whole 'new age' business is very distasteful to me. I don't like being even considered in that “category and I have almost no respect for it at all... It's very lightweight and very bothersome to me. .. I don't think it has anything to do with the actual truth about the meaning of the music”

"That one frosted my balls so much. I was just enraged every time I’d walk into a Tower Records or Virgin Megastore or something like that. There I was in the new age category and I just thought ‘Jesus Christ, how can I escape from these mindless bastards?"

"When I did the White Arcades album, I went to the studio with a list of titles and that's all."

 "I've never worked with musicians who know how to read music. So that's always swell for me,

"A mature artist ought to be able to make a good record from the contents of a cutlery drawer."

"The one collaboration that never occurred and never would occur would be David Sylvian, whose work I admire above all others. I just love everything he does. There is a really good reason, it’s because although one thing is good and another thing is good, putting them together doesn’t make it twice as good. In fact it could be a disaster, and I’ve never wanted that to happen."

Things people said about Harold 

"A great abstract painter trapped in the body of a musician" - Brian Eno.

"I would set up a sound, he would improvise to it, and occasionally I would add something: but it was mainly him performing in a sound-world I had created”  - Eno, on The Plateaux of Mirror.

“Harold Budd's intention was to make what he called "eternally pretty music", and his way of composing was to write a piece of music, then take out all the notes you didn't like! - Eno

"He was really down to earth, a ham 'n' eggs kind of guy" - Cocteau Twins, via David Toop.


Cheeky Harold put out the same piece twice under different names, in the same year. You can see why though, what a beauty. 

Another Moon + Melodies lovely.

Cocteau Twins "Eyes Are Mosaic ft. Harold Budd", as if this was a modern rap'n'B record! YouTube is pretty darn lax as an archive - of course it should be credited to Harold Budd. Elizabeth Fraser. Robin Guthrie. Simon Raymonde. 


His music lends itself to the infinitely extended remix 

Friday, November 11, 2022

Chant Down Babylon: The Disappearing and Reappearing Voice of Jamaican Roots Reggae


published as 'Chant Down Babylon', The Wire, 2000

by Simon Reynolds

Where better to open a meditation on the white romance with Jamaican music than with a record guaranteed to induce cringing from a higher percentage of reggae connoisseurs (and probably a hefty proportion of the Wire readership too) than any other? I'm talking about "White Man In Hammersmith Palais". Whatever you think of its rabble-rousing punky-reggae, The Clash's 1977 single is interesting because lyrically it's actually about the projections and misrecognitions that inevitably occur when white folks "engage" with black music (as opposed to simply consuming it). Joe Strummer attends an All Nighter featuring such "first time from Jamaica" stars as Dillinger and Delroy Wilson. But the performances--"showbizzy, very Vegas," Strummer recalled years later--frustrate his expectations: instead of "roots rock rebel" fighting talk, "it was Four Tops all night/with encores from stage right". The transracial identification felt by punk rockers towards roots rockers---captured earlier in "White Riot", with its admiration and envy towards the black rioters at 1976's over-policed Notting Hill Carnival--collides with a different reality of Jamaican pop culture, leaving Strummer demoralised and confused.

Roots reggae is now almost exclusively valued for dub's legacy of disorientating studio techniques. Which makes it disorientating in itself to go back to the mid-Seventies roots heyday and discover that reggae fans, black and white, actually looked to the music for "a solid foundation" (as The Congos sang it), for certainty and truth, for militancy and motivation. "Roots rock rebel" neatly condenses how Jamaican music was seen both by rock and by reggae itself. Reggae was anti-imperialist: Rasta's Pan-Africanism connected with the period's post-colonial struggles, from the communist MPLA in Angola resisting a South African invasion that was covertly backed by the USA, to the Patriotic Front liberation forces in white-controlled Rhodesia (Bob Marley later headlined Zimbabwe's 1980 Independence Celebrations). Reggae was anti-capitalist: Rasta's rhetoric of downpressed sufferers and judgement day for Babylon's plutocrats  was co-opted by Michael Manley's socialist government, whose warm relations with neighbouring Cuba led the USA to try to destabilize Jamaica via an IMF money-squeeze and other dirty tricks. And reggae was anti-fascist, providing the between-band soundtrack to Rock Against Racism concerts and bringing radical chic to a thousand student bedrooms with its poster iconography: Pete Tosh, a Che Guevera with natty dreads and black beret;  Medusa-headed spiritual warriors Black Uhuru, Burning Spear, and Culture; Steel Pulse preaching about "Handsworth Revolution".

Even before punk, rock culture had seized on reggae as the "rebel beat" of the Seventies, a much needed dose of authenticity at a time of post-countercultural burn-out: critics like Greil Marcus lionized Bob Marley  as a Caribbean Dylan and the Wailers as Jamaica's own Rolling Stones ("Street Fighting Men," but this time for real). Punk itself has been interpreted (by subcultural theorist Dick Hebdige) as partly based in the yearning for a "white ethnicity" equivalent to Rastafarianism: U.K. punks as exiles on every High Street, stranded in a Babylon burning with boredom. During the half-decade from 1977-81, reggae vied for supremacy with funk as the musical template for progressive post-punk groups. After the Pistols's break-up, Richard Branson wooed Lydon by flying him to Jamaica as A&R consultant for Virgin reggae imprint The Front Line, whose logo (black power fist clenched around barbed wire) conflated militancy and martyrdom; PiL's own dread vision rode the basslines of a blue-eyed Londoner who'd reinvented himself as Jah Wobble. In Scritti Politti's early Gramsci-influenced DIY phase, "Skank Bloc Bologna" linked the Notting Hill riots with Italy's 1977 anarcho-syndicalist uprisings; even after Green lost his Marxist faith and went post-structuralist, his deconstructions of the lover's discourse ("The 'Sweetest Girl'" et al) swayed to a lover's rock lilt. Pop Group and The Slits worked with UK dubmeister Dennis 'Blackbeard' Bovell; Ari Up eventually became a full-blown Rasta. The Specials fused social realism with the sulphate-twitchy rhythms of ska, and the mixed-race UB40 hymned the integrationist Martin Luther King (rather than separatist Marcus Garvey) over dole queue skank. And always, always, The Clash: getting Lee Perry to produce "Complete Control", covering "Armagideon Time" and "Police and Thieves," pulling off a convincing roots facsimile with "Bankrobber" (Mikey Dread at the controls). Former colony Jamaica responded to all this sincere flattery from the British Empire's bastard children with songs like Marley's "Punky Reggae Party": "The Wailers will be there/the Slits, the Feelgoods and the Clash." Not quite sure why pub rockers Lee Brilleaux and Wilko Johnson's were on Bob's guest list, but clearly it was a time of strange alliances.

The cultural studies/Rock Against Racism approach to reggae didn't ignore dub totally, but it was never really able to integrate dub's topsy-turvy sonic overturnings with its get-up-stand-up conception of reggae's political dissidence. In neo-Marxist academia and SWP activist circles alike, there's a certain uneasiness about drugs (ganja is barely mentioned in Hebdige's 1987 sound system culture book Cut 'N Mix), partly because of an anti-psychedelic premium on clear-minded rationality, and partly because linking black subcultures with drug use was felt to be dodgy, even crypto-racist. But the real stumbling block in the post-punk engagement with reggae was the religiosity of roots culture. It's possible to translate Rastafarian beliefs into Marxist terms, or treat them as allegory, mythic narratives of dispossession and deliverance. Just don't do it in front of a true Rasta believer--when ethnologist John W. Pulis attempted such a dialogue, his Western liberal relativism was swiftly dispatched: "Only one reality.... na views.... I-and-I no deal with kon-sciousness, I deal wit' truth."

Today, a totally different white hip discourse frames reggae, emphasising elements downplayed in the late Seventies but (inevitably) suppressing others. For simplicity's sake, I'm going to shorthand this cluster of ideas as the Afro-Futurist discourse, but it actually has multiple facets: dub as deconstruction (of the song, of the metaphysics of musical presence); the producer as mad scientist, dark magus, shaman, trickster; the Macro Dub Infection notions of dub as postgeographical virus and of dub's sonic instability as an education in "insecurity". The sonic praxis of these notions encompasses New York's illbient scene (We, Sub Dub, DJ Spooky) and Brooklyn's Wordsound massive, Bill Laswell's numerous dub initiatives, post rock outfits like Tortoise, Labradford, Rome, and Him, and quite a few others. Theoretically, the ideas have been largely developed by people associated with the Wire, from John Corbett's seminal essay on the "madness" of Lee Perry (and fellow Afro-Futurists Sun Ra and George Clinton) through David Toop's probing of the origins of modern remixology in reggae's versioning, to Ian Penman's classic meditation on Tricky and "the smoky logic of dub."

What all these strands of dub theory share is the exaltation of producers and engineers over singers and players, and the idea that studio effects and processing are more crucial than the original vocal or instrumental performances. Which is why thousands of words have been spilled on the wizardry of Perry or Tubby, but very little on reggae vocalisation or the role of drummers, bassists, rhythm guitarists et al in building kinaesthetic mood-scapes (a/k/a grooves). The mystery of "skank" has failed to provoke a downpour of eloquence--the way different ridims pull you into their flow, entrain your limbs in their gait, tune your cells into their vibration. This is understandable, given the difficulty of writing about rhythm with any specificity (mind you, it's just as tough to go beyond generalities and talk about a specific auteur-producer's signature, to isolate exactly what it is that gives one dub engineer, breakbeat scientist or 303-tweaker his singularity and superior rank).

The really distorting side effect of the Afro-Futurist privileging of the producer, though, is that the fact that reggae actually involved people saying stuff about stuff has almost totally been forgotten. Lyrically, most Seventies roots reggae is as plainspoken and bluntly demagogic as Tom Robinson Band. This is not to say that the shift in how reggae has been conceptualized---from "the sound of politics" in the Seventies to "the politics of sound" today--hasn't opened up exciting ways of thinking about the music; indeed, it was originally a necessary corrective to the exhausted post-punk over-emphasis on messages and meaning. But it has also de-politicized and de-spiritualized a music that was originally "part journalism, part prophecy" (James A. Winders).  At the extreme, Jamaica is effectively erased in all its materiality and knotty cultural contradictions. So Calvin Johnson, founder of Olympia, Washington's K Records and frontman of Dub Narcotic Sound System, can blithely declare: "I never saw dub as a type of music, but as a process. The fact that it originated in reggae is inconsequential."

The totem, touchstone, and discursive bulwark for the Afro-Futurist take on reggae is Lee 'Scratch' Perry. I'm going to take two tacks here: firstly, contesting the reduction of roots culture to this single smoke-wizened figure, and secondly , suggesting that the mad scientist version of Scratch is itself reductive. As the Afro-Futurist consensus about dub has solidified over the last decade, the apotheosis of Perry at the expense of his less flamboyant yet more consistent peers (Tubby, Keith Hudson, Augustus Pablo, Tommy Cowan, Joe Gibbs, Scientist, etc) has intensified.

In the Afro-Futurist discourse, Lee Perry and Bob Marley are conceptual twins, linked but opposed. Interestingly, two critics who've contrasted Marley-ism (reggae as text/truth/roots) with Perry-ology (dub as texture/play/deracination) also use the same metaphor to reject the former and big-up the later. Ian Penman, in his Tricky meditation (Wire 133, also in the essay collection Vital Signs) mocks Bob as "an olde worlde flat-earth icon".  Kodwo Eshun, in his brief Perry chapter in More Brilliant Than The Sun, praises Scratch's location "far from Rastafari's flat-earth metaphysics". Apart from the ethnocentrism of the Rasta as flat earth theory analogy (odd, given the Afro-Futurist tendency to valorize voodoo, alchemy, Gnosticism, and other superstitions), it's misleading to imply that dub and roots reggae can be understood separately from that strange Jamaican religion. For starters, Rasta's sacred burru drums--bass, funde, repeater--are embedded deep in reggae's rhythmic matrix. Perry himself is a devout Rasta. He produced and often had an instigating conceptual role in scores of songs with titles like "Psalms 20", "Zion's Blood", "Dread Lion", "Sodom and Gomorrow", "Feast of Passover", plus numerous topical social comment tunes like Max Romeo's "War In A Babylon". Even a seemingly whimsical Perry lyric like "Roast Fish and Cornbread" is actually about ital, the dietary guidelines that are crucial to righteous Rasta living.

Lee Perry's antic personality is enormously enjoyable (even if enjoyed, surprisingly, by people who usually profess contempt for pop's cult of personality), his sonic achievements mighty (if strewn amid much bad-TV-left-on-in-the-background flimsy fare, and tarnished by a post-peak trail of underachieving disgrace as long as George Clinton's. And that gig he did at Dingwalls in 1987 was fucking atrocious). Still, towering if erratic dub genius aside, I can't help suspecting some dubious ulterior factors behind the privileging of Perry. One is his fertility as a text for exegesis: Perry's syncretic cosmology of  superstitions, science fiction, and pulp movies, his is-it-schizophrenia-or-performance-art-that-never-stops eccentricity, his Sun Ra-like wordgames and encryptions, will support a micro-industry of dissertations and seminars for decades to come. The other reason for the Perry Cult is, I reckon, because the tomfoolery and quirked-out levity of  much of his output offers a blessed repreive from the sheer earnestness of roots reggae, which is often literally sermonising, all parables and chapter-and-verse.

Time to probe the peculiarities of Rastafarianism a little deeper. Dub's tricknology is sometimes linked to the trickster gods of West African animism (spirit-worship). But Rasta itself is not pagan. It has little in common with Haitian voodoo, Cuban santeria, or the other Africanized remixes of Catholicism. Instead of a panoply of spirits disguised as Catholic saints, Rasta has just the one God, the stern patriarch of the Old Testament---not someone with whom you can cut deals, as you can with voodoo's loa. If anything, Rasta is Afro-Protestant, sharing with mainland America's fundamentalists an emphasis on close reading of the Scriptures and a millenarian belief in an End of Time whereupon the righteous get transported to the promised land. Rasta resembles some of the revolutionary heresies of the Middle Ages documented in Norman Cohn's The Pursuit of the Millenium. The belief in Haile Selassie, His Imperial Majesty of Ethiopia, as the Messiah recalls those Medieval sects whose utopian hopes involved the resurrection of a king or Emperor who would be saviour of the poor and scourge of the corrupt (false kings, the clergy).  Historically, as much revolutionary energy has been mobilized by the idea of going back as going forward. Rastafarianism also owes a lot to Judaism---the kosher-like ital laws, the taboos about menstruation, and above all the Exodus saga of a people uprooted and enslaved (first by the Egyptians, then by the Babylonians) but struggling to return to their homeland. (Rasta's own version of racial envy goes: "Black Zion! We want a Zion of our own"). Transmitted via reggae, this mythic narrative resonates with dispossessed peoples across the world, from aboriginal Australians to Native Americans (roots reggae is hugely popular on the reservations, and rivaled only by death metal!).

Because of its anti-institutional bias and trust-in-Jah fatalism, Rasta has never had the will-to-power to actually create the theocratic society it basically proposes. To grasp how weird it is that such an anti-modern creed has been so influential over Western youth culture, imagine the following alternative history scenario:  the parallel universe where post-revolutionary Iran generated a form of popular music so globally inspirational it spawns its own Ayatollah-friendly Polices, UB40s, Ace of Bases. Both Rasta and Islamic fundamentalism are anti-imperalist, anti-America, and opposed to ungodly Western liberalism--from women's reproductive rights (Rasta decries birth control and abortion) to homosexuality.

Which brings me to what prompted this piece in the first place: the gap between my intense pleasure in and (for want of a better word) "identification" with roots reggae, and the glaring fact that my experiential framework and worldview are utterly remote from the Rastafarian's. For instance, one of my absolute favorite pieces of dubbed-out roots vocalisation is Linval Thompson on the King Tubby mixed "Straight To Babylon Boy's Head" (compiled on King Tubby's Special 1973-1976). Thompson sings: "From I was born in this world/My mama always tell me/That Babylon is a-wicked... Babylon drink rum/Babylon eat pork/Ride on dreadlocks... If you don't believe me, just look in the Bible... Babylon have to face/the Judgement Day." Now, I had a bit of bacon only the other day, and although I think "Babylon" is a handy nickname for the multi-tentacled malevolence of globalizing capital, the Good Book is just another book for me, not God's truth. Listening, rapt and swoony to roots songs like this one, I feel a bit like Morrissey: twisting the words of "Panic" slightly, "The music that I constantly play/Says nothing to me about my life"--yet I love it to death anyway. How can it happen, such violent cathexis, this flooding intimacy of pleasure, this beckoning? It's surely mediated by all the cross-cultural baggage of projections and preconceptions, but it doesn't feel like it --- it feels like an instantaneous spark of connection, almost pre-cognitive. It's tempting to woffle about inarticulate speech of the heart, about pure spirit cutting across all barriers. Morrissey, who once declared "all reggae is vile," actually provides my only clue. There's an uncanny vocal resemblance between Thompson and the Smiths frontman--the fey flutter and lambent grain, the mixture of rejoicing in the fallen-ness of the world and confidence in the singer's elect righteousness. Mozzer sang about his Mum a lot too.

I feel a similar inexplicable soul-bond with The Congos shimmering falsetto harmonies as they beseech "open up the Gates of Zion," plead "send us another Moses", and promise "repatriation is at hand." Probably the pinnacle of the roots era in terms of vocal groups, Heart of the Congos is prime evidence for the case that Lee Perry's best work was his productions of superlative singers rather than his own talkover dub. On the Congos's album, there's none of the mixing-board buffoonery that sometimes makes Perry resemble Jamaica's own Gong; even his favorite sonic effect, the moo-ing cow, can't deflate the devotional trance of "Children Crying." Instead, the famous Black Ark 4-track sound--a numinous haze of will-o'-the-wispy susurration that actually stems from the "degradation effect" (Steve Barrow) caused by Perry's having to dump multiple tracks onto one track to free them for further overdubbing----enshrouds the Congos's harmonies like the nimbus of light around God's head.

John Peel once described the sound of Misty In Roots, his favorite UK reggae group, as "Medieval". Rasta's liberation theology is a disconcerting weave of revolutionary and reactionary, and its paradoxes are intrinsic to dub's own double-feel of pre-modern and postmodern. Could it be that dub only works because it is simultaneously about "a solid foundation," absolute bedrock certainty, and yet offers an adventure playground for the perceptions?   It is Jamaican psychedelia, but it is also Jamaican gospel. Therein resides this music's abiding mystery: the intermingling, the warp'n'weft co-existence, of two different modes of consciousness. Because reggae has penetrated British culture so deeply and feels so familiar, it's easy to forget that Jamaica is still part of the undeveloped Third World. Reggae is a membrane between pre-industrial antiquity and hi-tech futurism. Hence Perry's own magick-meets-sci-fi imagery of "vampires" and "bionic rats."

There's another gap that inspired this piece--between the Afro-Futurist version of dub as headwrecking delirium and my personal pleasure in the music, which is less a sensation of being hurled into an alien, chaotic soundscape and more like coming home, being returned to my true element. The notion of dub as apocalypse, ambush, assault course, seems more like a response to a non-Jamaican lineage (a continuum that runs from On U Sound and Mark Stewart through Massive and Tricky, and many others) that sensed and amplified a potential for mindfuck in Seventies reggae.  Listening to the original roots era dubs, though, there seems be different stuff going on.  There's a kind of impressionistic pictorialism, like Ethiopianist program music--the golden horizons and mirage shimmer of an Abyssinia of the stoned mind's eye; patient processional rhythms suggesting freedom trains, the stoic trek of exodus and homecoming. The other aspect is an erotics of sound: dub's teasing drop-outs, its dapplings and tingles, flickers and fluctuations, correspond to Roland Barthes's notion of eroticism as "intermittance", as glimpses "where the garment gapes."  Dub's polymorphous perversity is why its techniques migrated so well into disco's endless foreplay, its caresses without climax.

The trajectory of dub & roots after its late Seventies peak corresponds to a familiar syndrome: the black popular music (social, designed for dancing) that gradually turns into highbrow art, its past cherished and conserved by white curators and archivists, its present sustained by a mostly white vanguard who rarify the music and place it firmly on the cerebral side of the mind/body dualism it once so successfully dissolved. You can see this syndrome recurring through the histories of jazz, soul, funk, old skool hip hop. Often running in parallel to the avant-garde abstraction option, there's a purely antiquarian approach--the pointless fidelity of trad jazz or digi-dub.

The first casualty of the bohemianisation of dub wasn't the usual one (danceablity), it was the voice. Dub and dub-influenced music in the Nineties almost always consists of instrumentals. At best, you got love songs to dub reggae, rather than love songs to Jah. At worst, you got a music that is all effects and no affect.  The symbiosis and synergy between roots and dub, it's a bit like Swiss Cheese. Without the holes, the cheese is less eye-grabbing but it still works on a basic nutritional and flava level. But the holes, on their own (i.e. tricknology abstracted and decontextualized) are nearly nothing. For sure, Tubby's dubs of singers like Linval Thompson are more thrilling than the originals: hole-some is better than wholesome. But Tubbs needed material to go dub crazy with in the first place. The same applies to more recent tricknologies like breakbeat science---the science needs something to manifest itself through, the flesh and sweat and "feel" of the "Amen" or "Think" break.

The present moment is an odd time to be re-thinking dub. Its profile on the Hipster Influences Shares Index peaked around 1995-96, when you could hear its spectral presence everywhere from Tricky to Chain Reaction to Tortoise to Spooky. But with the roots reissue programmes of labels like Blood & Fire increasingly scraping barrel-bottoms and left-field music culture's attention drifting to other exoticisms (like Tropicalia) there seems to be a certain exhaustion of interest in dub. Things like the Grand Royal issue devoted to Lee Perry's every last curry-goat fart seal the sense of overdocumentation, of terra cognita. 

It would be easy, and not especially illuminating, to trace the permeation of dub's techniques through UK dance culture in the last twelve years. Instead I'm going to sketch another path of diffusion, taken by what was originally the raw material that got dubbed up: the roots vocal. From the start, British rave culture has been defined by a compulsion to fuse house with reggae and hip hop: the bass pressure and Yard allusions of bleep outfits like Ital Rockers and Unique 3, Meat Beat Manifesto's "Radio Babylon," Moody Boys's Journey Into Dubland EP with its Hugh Mundell "just got to be free" clarion, the Ragga Twins's fusion of dancehall jabber and hardcore blare. Even the terms "raver" and "rave" were originally Jamaican slang. As breakbeat hardcore evolved into jungle, vocal samples from roots singers and dancehall chatters like Dr. Alimantado, Leroy Sibbles, Eek-A-Mouse, Snaggapuss, Barrington Levy, Cutty Ranks, Anthony Red Rose, Reggie Stepper, Topcat, and many more, became endemic. The Prodigy even got Max Romeo into the charts with their 1992 hit "Out of Space." Imported "yard tapes" of Kingston soundclashes provided a wealth of catchphrases from unidentified MCs--"get ready for dis, for dis, for dis", "special request", "come with it my man", "get mash up," "champion sound a-way"--which were endlessly re-sampled and still crop up in today's underground garage and 2-step, vibe power undiminished.

There's a vast volume of discourse on the role of DJs and producers in dance culture, but hardly any discussion of the MC's crucial role in the hardcore/jungle/garage continuum: the way the mic' controller operates as a kind of membrane or integument between the expressive and the rhythmatic, the social and the technological. The MC vocalizes the intensities of machine-rhythm by transforming himself into a supplement to the drum kit, while simultaneously relaying the massive's will back to the DJ (rewind selecta!). The MC is the most stubbornly ineradicable Jamaican trace persisting in UK rave, permeating the music both as samples from ragga records and as live partner to the DJ. And the MC reveals that the influence of contemporary Jamaican music, dancehall ragga, on UK dance culture is the untold counterpart to the over-told story of dub's  legacy.

Hipsters lost interest in Jamaica during the Eighties, partly because roots fell into a platitudinous rut, but mainly because of dancehall's replacement of Rasta spirituality with slack talk about sex/guns/money and a faithlessness verging on nihilism ("Africa nah go mek me bullet-proof", as one rude boy put it). The white reggae audience withered away, alienated by dancehall's hieroglyphic opacity (its harshly exaggerated patois and Jamaica-specific references) and its jarring machine beats (actually more African than reggae, a digitalized reversion to pre-ska rural folk rhythms like etu, pocomani, and kumina). With Reagan-stooge Edward Seaga ruling the country, Jamaican pop culture looked away from Africa to Black America (gangsta rap) and to Hollywood bad-boy mythologies (cowboy and Mafia movies). Cheap cocaine defined dancehall's brash and braggart vibe, rather than Rasta's meditational sacrament "herb". Even when dancehall underwent its own mid-Nineties "cultural" revival with Rasta singers like Sizzla, Luciano, Anthony B., and bad boys turned conscious like Buju Banton, white hipsters didn't recover their interest in Jamaica.

Meanwhile, though, dancehall was infiltrating UK pop culture via second-and-third generation Caribbean Britons and the white working class youth who'd grown up with them. Intriguingly, that influence is largely on the level of vocals and language rather than rhythm or production. Although jungle's MC element was gradually purged from drum 'n' bass as part of its realignment with techno, it resurfaced in UK underground garage, from the raucous patois boasts of speed garage anthems like Gant's "Sound Bwoy Burial" to the current wave of MC-driven 2-step tunes from artists like M-Dubs, Corrupted Crew, Master Stepz, and DJ Luck & MC Neat (who scored a Top Ten hit early in 2000 with "A Little Bit of A Luck"). From the gruff, burly-chested boom of chatters like Neat to the serpentile ladies man drawl of Richie Dan, garage MCs provide the yang to the 2step divas's yin. But the ghettocentric grain of the patois voice also works as a kind of ideological/textural counterweight to garage's aspirational VIP gloss. Sampled from dancehall tracks or live-and-direct on the mic', the MC voice is a residual trace of non-assimilated Jamaican otherness; it's some "this is where we came from" grit to offset garage's "this is where we're going" slickness. It's roots 'n future, to borrow the title of a '93 hardcore rave anthem by Phuture Assassins.

It's not just dancehall, though, that lives large in UK underground garage: dub and roots have a more vital presence here than almost anywhere else in contemporary music, bar the new Pole album. Dub ideas originally infiltrated Eighties postdisco music via the B-side remixes of tracks on New York labels like Prelude, West End, and Sleeping Bag, and then blossomed with the spatiality of Strictly Rhythm's early garage tracks and productions by Mood II Swing. Over the last few years UK garage outfit New Horizons have picked up on the latent Jamaican element in New York house imports with their B-side dubs, and developed a strange and wondrous micro-genre of reggaematic house---the churchical organ vamps and Gregory Isaacs-on-helium falsetto froth of "Find The Path", the bassbin-crushing low-end and "slam down ya body gal" slackness of their "Scrap Iron Dubs EP," the skanking dips and afterbeats woven into the four-to-the-floor pump of "Cool Tha Menta". Even stranger hybridity came with last year's spate of R&B bootlegs like Large Joints "Dubplate" and the perpetrator-unknown illegal remix of  smash ballad "Swing My Way"---both bootlegs set the diva's gaseously timestretched vocal adrift in a dubby echo-chamber, over a groove built from a rootical organ vamp and a chugging house beat. Abducting unsuspecting R&B goddesses into a Jamaican soundworld, these tracks offer typical only-in-London recontextualizations of  non-UK sources.

2-step garage is really a four-way collision between gay American house, homophobic Jamaican ragga, Hackney council estate junglism and uptown New York R&B. It's the sonic embodiment of a British identity in flux, under the  triple attrition of American pop culture, European unity, and colonial chickens coming home to roost. Hence the "reverse assimilation" effect caused by the Caribbean population in the UK; diasporic peoples unsettle wherever they settle. Fulfilling the promise of Smiley Culture's "Cockney Translation", reggae patois has other-ized the "true" Britons, seducing the young into speaking a creole tongue and making them unfamiliar and alarming to the parent generation. Hence such anxiety symptoms as Ali G.'s popularity and the articles last year in the quality newspapers arguing that rap radio DJ/bishop's son Tim Westwood deserved to get shot because he speaks with a Jamaican accent. (Which he doesn't--it's Bronx B-boys he strives to be down with, not yardies). The subtext is pernicious, though: not so much "to your own self be true" authenticity but "stick with your own kind" apartheid.

In this undeclared kulturkampf, UK garage fights back with ridim and song. Artful Dodger's "Re-Rewind (The Crowd Say 'Bo! Selector')" took dancehall slanguage to Number 2 in the Pop Charts. On the recent "Warm Up" EP, MCs Shy Cookie, Sweetie Irie and Spee reinvent the Englishness of canonical literature and period drama in the form of "Millenium Twist"---Dickensian dancehall starring an updated Fagin from the musical Oliver! instructing modern urchins how to duck 'n' dive Y2K stylee. The chorus goes "L.O.N.D.O.N, London Town/That's where we're coming from". The paradox of London dance culture is the way it combines a fierce sense of local identity with total open-ness to external influence: the one-way, amazingly still unreciprocated alliance with American R&B; the enduring ties with Jamaica; the import culture around US house 'n' garage. London's endless permutational flux also illustrates something that offers a partial solution to my quandary about how I could possibly love Rastafarian roots reggae so much. Somehow music, even when targeted at a very specific community and tailored to a precise and rather inflexible worldview, drifts out of the hands of those who "own" it and gets under the skin of those it was not intended for and whose world it does not "describe". It still may not "belong" to you, but strangely you can belong to it.