Friday, October 20, 2023

Umbrellas in the Sun (Disques du Crepuscule / Factory Benelux DVD)



(LTM )

The Wire, long ago

by Simon Reynolds

 Founded in Brussels at the dawn of the Eighties, Les Disques Du Crepuscule was operated by a clutch of Belgian aesthetes suffering from an unhealthy infatuation with Factory Records. They swiftly formed an alliance with their Manchester idols and jointly released records by the likes of A Certain Ratio in the Low Countries (hence Factory Benelux).  Now the equally Fac-obsessed reissue label LTM-- not content with echoing the Belgian imprint in its very name, an acronym for Les Temps Modernes--is paying tribute with this splendid DVD of promos and live footage of Crepuscule/Benelux acts. 

Vintage videos can be embarrassingly dated, but the bulk of the material on Umbrellas gives off a sense of “limited means, effectively used.” ACR’s “Back To The Start” is a case in point, juxtaposing murky hand-held film of the band shaking their stuff in a field after nightfall with scenes of children dancing on the edge of an indoor swimming pool. The sallow lighting, oddly angled shots, and strange bodily geometries perfectly suit the group’s dislocated disco, its parched percussion draped with the bled-like-veal vocal pallor of Martha Tilson. 

Josef K--like ACR, Northern punk-funkers with cropped hair and very clean ears--appear here performing “Sorry For Laughing” on a television pop show. The simple but clever twist is that the TV footage intermittently appears projected, bluescreen-style, onto a lump of Gak nestling on a girl’s bare stomach. Manipulating the goo, she distends the images of the band as they bob on her belly.  

On a purely sonic level, Umbrellas’ highlight is  Cabaret Voltaire’s “Sluggin’ For Jesus,” the lead track off 1981’s Three Crepuscule Tracks EP (arguably the group’s peak). Laced with American televangelist prattle, the entrancing Karoli-funk groove is accompanied by light-flickered images of the guys fondling their synths and, in Richard Kirk’s case, scritching away at a violin.  

Close behind “Sluggin’” is the exquisitely plangent threnody for Ian Curtis that is The Durutti Column’s “Never Known” (although, for mystifying reasons, the track is here titled “Marie Louise Gardens”). With Vini Reilly generating such agonizing beauty of sound, all that’s required is the sparest of visuals, and that's what we get:  the “missing boy” alone in a deserted public park at twilight, caressing the guitar strings with his finger-tips.  

In scarcity terms, though, the gems here comprise the fabulous monochrome footage of Malaria! onstage performing “White Sky, White Sea”   Tuxedomoon’s “Litebulb Overkill,” also live, but juxtaposed with Eurail travelogue footage (what looks like France seen from a moving train); and the 23 minute long film of a performance by Belgian funkateers Marine live juxtaposed with arty, kaleidoscopic visuals. Most known for the existensialist Chic of “Life In Reverse”, Marine’s entire aesthetic was based on the debut Benelux release, ACR’s emaciated cover of “Shack Up”. 

This DVD sags somewhat near its end as we enter the undistinguished and rudderless mid-80s phase of Factory output (the sub-Sade cafĂ© bleu-isms of Kalima, anybody? I didn’t think so). But overall Umbrellas In the Sun is a wonderful document that conveys Crepuscule’s ultra-refined Euro-vision while also capturing captures a lost moment of art-into-pop infusion.

ohmylord, this period of Anthony H. Wislon A&Ring is quite something innit 

Friday, October 13, 2023

Vermorel / Westwood

 (for Artforum)

Fred Vermorel achieved both renown and notoriety for his unorthodox approach to pop biography and as a theorist of fame and fandom. But 1996’s Vivienne Westwood: Fashion, Perversity and the Sixties Laid Bare was his most eccentric statement yet.  For a start, the book was as much about Westwood’s partner Malcolm McLaren as the legendary designer herself.  Her story was ably chronicled in an imaginary interview weaved together from magazine quotes and half-remembered ancedotes stemming from Vermorel’s long association with the punk couture duo and the Sex Pistols milieu. But the book really came alive with the central section: Vermorel’s memoir of Sixties London, when he and McLaren were art-school accomplices. The longest and most vivid part of the book, it’s packed with fascinating digressions on topics such as the semiotics of cigarette smoking and the atmosphere of all-night art cinema houses. Among Vermorel’s several provocative assertions is the claim that pop music back then simply wasn’t as important as made out by subsequent false memorials to the Sixties, but was regarded as unserious, a mere backdrop to other bohemian or artistic activities.  Posing as a profile of a fashion icon, Vivienne Westwood presents the reader with an outlandish blend of cultural etiology (it doubles as an autopsy on the Sixties’s impossible dreams and analysis of its perverse psychology) and  triangular love story. Vermorel and Westwood emerge as both still besotted with the incorrigible McLaren, despite having each “broken up” with him long ago.    

-          Simon Reynolds

Tuesday, October 3, 2023

me and Stereolab / me and Stereolab spoofed

My first proper sit-down in-person interview with Stereolab 

Expertly lampooned in Melody Maker by a reader a few weeks later (or possibly a colleague pretending to be a reader? David Bennun did the letters page that week).

Other early Stereolab enthusiasm - mini-interview from a 1993 spread on Ambient as buzzword of '93, where they sat alongside Main and Seefeel and the Telepathic Fish crew.

And Single of the Week #2 also in late '93

Also wrote about this mini-LP in Spin that year


The Groop Played Space Age Batchelor Pad Music 

Spin, 1993 

Stereolab is one of the more intriguing groups to emerge from Britain's now-kaput dreampop scene. And this mini-LP is the group's most artful gambit yet. The title and packaging is a sly parody-homage to the "exotica" genre of the '50s, when tropical-scented, easy-listening albums by Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman, etc, were designed so that the modern bachelor could (a) show off the stereophonic range of his state-of-the-art hi-fi, and (b) get his date "in the mood" before making his move. 

It's a good joke, and a logical evolution for dreampop, since My Bloody Valentine, Cocteau Twins, Slowdive et al. always made for a consummate seduction soundtrack. Stereolab knows its musical history (it titled a recent single "John Cage Bubblegum") and on this album it explores the secret links between trance rock, ambient and Muzak. The result could be dubbed "kitschadelic": at once tacky and celestial, synthetic and sublime. On the opener, "Avant Garde M.O.R.", Laetitita Saider's serene and listeless vocals (midway between Nico and Astrud Gilberto) float through a fragrant mist of acoustic guitars, marimbas, and mood synths. "Space Age Bachelor Pad Music (Mellow)" could be the sort of jaunty, piped music you'd hear in a carpet store, but instead of being below the threshold of audibility, it's at full volume, so that its weirdness is in-your-face. The sequel, "Space Age Bachelor Pad Music (Foamy)" sounds like a Muzak vent that's fallen into a swimming pool. 

The pace picks up on Side Two (New Wave), with "We're Not Adult Orientated". At first, the song's reedy Farfisa and staccato beat really do sound Noo Wave, but the track develops into something that's less like the Cars and more like the motorik style of the German band Neu!, a brimming, tingling, exultant onrush of sound that simulates the sensation of gliding down the Autobahn. 

At times, Stereolab's parody of blandness is very nearly merely bland. But at its best, Stereolab is making the Muzak of the spheres.

I also wrote up the whole Melody Maker interview as a Q and A for my friends's independent magazine The Lizard (someone should digitize the whole six issue run of that, it was a much superior branching off a monthly full-colour publication called Lime Lizard, that itself had a lot of good stuff in it)


The Lizard


SIMON REYNOLDS quizzes TIM GANE and LAETITIA SADIER about muzak, minimalism, motorik, Marxism and their fab new LP "Mars Audiac Quintet".

All the stuff that you were rehabilitating last year with "Space Age Bachelor Pad Music" and tracks like "Avant-Garde MOR" --muzak, mood and moog music, stereo-testing LPs, 'exotica'--is now tres hip. First there was Research's "Incredibly Strange Music" book/CD, now there's Joseph Lanza's "Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-Listening and Other Mood Song", Bar/None's anthology of avant-muzak legend Juan Garcia Esquivel (coincidentally titled "Space Age Bachelor Pad Music"), and so on, ad nauseam. All that stuff appears to be on the verge of entering the canon of acceptable, cool music.

    Tim: "My only problem with 'Incredibly Strange Music', or at least the first Volume (I've heard # 2 is better) is that it seemed to be trying to attract people for kitschy, B-Movie reasons. You know how people have all the B-Movie posters but probably never saw the films?  There's a difference between putting that music on at a party to make people laugh, and genuinely liking it as music. For me, muzak, moog, exotica, etc, it did a lot of things much earlier than other more respected, artistically serious forms of music did.  Maybe for different reasons, but that doesn't take away from the fact that it did them, and created often shockingly original connections or juxtapositions of sound and genre. A lot of the reason why it's popular now is that it was very modern music."

     So you're saying that it's the context of a music's creation, and of its consumption, that determines how seriously people take it? And that muzak is denigrated because of the way it was used, i.e. background listening?

    "A lot of it was done for the crassest of reasons. Martin Denny's Moog album was obviously a cash-in, but what he created had a resonance that was far greater than if it had been done for high art reasons. It's kind of beyond high art or low art, it mixes up those categories.  And the best music should be confusing, something you can't immediately decide what it's all about.  And that applies to Stereolab--we want it to have lots of spaces where the listener has to decide 'is it avant-garde? Is it pop? Is it just self-indulgence?' Music can be surrealist if you look at it the right way.

    "My big attraction to mood & moog music etc is that it's about the future. But 'cos it was made in the '50s and '60s, its idea of 'the future' was quite crass, but also full of optimism and infinite possibilities.  And that's different to now, where the future isn't about infinite possibilities..."

   It's about infinite anxieties.

   "There's an attraction there, that people thought 'the future is gonna be fabulous, and wow, this is the weird music we're gonna hear there'."

     Other elements that you draw on seem purely nostalgic, though, like all the ba-ba-ba-ba backing harmonies straight out of French '60s MOR.

    "There's a problem with that, which is you can get too close to El Records--too cloying, and such a close copy of the original that it's pointless. The point is to take that music and juxtapose it with something else, something it's never been associated with before. So that you create your own personality and your own sound.  There's no point in fetishising something, copying all the details precisely..."

     Because you create something that just sounds dated...  I suppose Stereolab's prime juxtaposition of hitherto antithetical elements is the way your sound fuses ultra-naff middle aged easy listening with ultra-cool underground rock: the trance-minimalism of the Velvets, Silver Apples, The Modern Lovers,Faust, Neu!, et al.

     "My favourite music of all time is German music from the early Seventies. Laetitia too.  Hearing Faust for the first time, it completely changed me.  I don't know why, but that music has a power over me that is just a little bit above everything else.  But that said, I don't like the Faust & Neu! thing to be bludgeoned to death."

     A lot of your songs do rely on the motorik beat that Kraftwerk and Neu! used, though. That very metronomic, unsyncopated, uninflected rhythm, that's almost anti-rock'n'roll even though you can trace it back from Neu!  through The Modern Lover's "Roadrunner", The Doors' "LA Woman" and Canned Heat's "On The Road Again", to Steppenwolf's "Born To Be Wild". Why do you love that motorik feel?

     Laetitia: "You can never get bored with that beat.  There's a discipline there, but never as an oppressor, always as something liberating.  I find rock'n'roll really alienating, so I'm glad that Neu! exists."

    Tim: "Krautrock is also very anti-muso--it has spaces where it's free form, but it's always done in a way that's non-musicianly.  There's no solos or self-indulgence.  It's spontaneous and exploratory, but not in that jazz sense of musicians playing to their full extent.  I still don't know what the precedent for Neu! and Faust is. I always have this argument with some friends in France, who say 'well, the French don't really play rock music, it isn't really in the culture'. And I say 'well, until Neu! & Co, rock hadn't been part of German culture, but they took it and made it into something that no one in America or England had dreamed of.  It was an expression of something very particular to that country, and yet it was far in advance of anything going on in the USA or the UK."


'Ping Pong' is a critique of capitalism's in-built cyclical crises of slump and recovery, masquerading as Francoise Hardy-style Gallic girl-pop; "Wow and Flutter" is a chug-a-long World Of Twist meets Neu! anthem, whose chorus--"it's not eternal, imperishable, oh yes it will go"--gleefully anticipates capitalism's fall. So, Laetitia, are you a card-carrying Marxist?

    Laetitia: "There is something there that I probably agree with.  I've read 'The Communist Manifesto' and that was written over a century ago, but some of it still stands up.  Some of it is obsolete, cos it was written at a certain time. I don't like the term 'being a Marxist' 'cos that makes it a religion or something. But it's true that Marx was a great thinker and there's a lot to be learned from his writings, even today"

     Stereolab's ideas about integrating politics and pop are a helluva lot more sophisticated than most forms of agit-pop--specifically Manic Street Preachers, Rage Against Machine, Fun-Da-Mental, where there's a rather pat equation of hard politics and hard aggressive music. That whole combat rock posture.  The trouble with that kind of agit-pop is that the punters who buy into that ethos seem to think that buying a CD or a concert ticket (and then standing in a crowd of likeminds) is somehow a 'contribution to the struggle'.

    Tim: "All records are about self-image, in that you buy the music that reflects your sense of yourself and position in the world. It's about wanting to belong to a certain group. And that's not something you can change."

   Laetitia; "That approach is not subversive at all, because it's obvious. So screaming = 'angry'. The real subversion lies where you don't expect it."

     So Stereolab's political contribution resides in fostering a subtle, insidiously effective climate of critical awareness, as opposed to constructing a tenuous, shallow solidarity via slogans and calls-to-arms?

    Tim: "There has to be a certain amount of thought process involved on the part of the listener.  Like Dada--when they wanted to combat the First World War, instead of putting up posters that said 'We are against the War', they transformed it into an art thing that wasn't immediately or literally about the war, but evoked its horror and absurdity. The Situationists did the same thing, with 'detournement'".

     I was a big fan of the Situationists when I was younger, having read of them in interviews with Malcolm McLaren and initially assuming they were some fabulously subversive, evil rock band called The Situationists. Anyway, like you, I was very taken by their playful, mischievous forms of subversion--like pasting speech bubbles over advertising hoardings so that the people spouted anti-bourgeois rhetoric or surreal poetry. At the same time, the Yippies in America were doing similar kinds of agit-prop pranks, like proposing a pig for President.  Eventually, however, the far-left and anarchist radicals of the late Sixties realised that Dadaist wit was no match for the batons and bullets of state power.  And many of the idealists who were mobilised by 1968 evolved into terrorists units--the Weathermen in American, the RAF in Germany--and waged war on the State, fought fire with fire.  I mention all this because I remember Laetitia once said in an interview that she believed revolution would necessarily involve bloodshed and violence.

     Laetitita: "It's inevitable. The other day I was thinking about this, wondering: 'if revolution really does happen, what do we do with people like John Major? Do we kill them? Do we brainwash them? Do we get them to mop the streets?' When it gets that concrete, it's 'fucking hell!' Cos that's a hell of a responsibility. And that's why such a lot of revolutions, like the Maoists, involved so much blood and slaughter."

     I sometimes whether the problem is not capitalism versus socialism, but industrialism itself.  The Communist Bloc, as we all know, was state capitalist, not socialist--the surplus value generated by workers went to the Nation instead of private shareholders, which just meant that it went to finance the USSR's military-industrial complex. In some respects--like polluting the environment--Soviet state capitalism was worse than its Western equivalent. But who knows, even if 'proper' socialism was achieved--with real 'soviets', i.e.  workers councils--maybe life would still be dreary. Because you'd still be living in a managerial, bureaucratic society, you'd still have people working on conveyor belts or cleaning toilets with minimum job satisfaction. Anyway, I guess what I'm trying to ask is: do you have a mental picture of utopia, of a perfectly run and just world?

   Laetitia: "No, I don't have such a picture. I don't think there could ever be a perfect world. At the same time, there's plenty of scope for a much fairer system. At the moment 6 percent of the world owns 90 percent of the wealth. All that wealth should belong to nobody and to everybody! It's completely mathematical, things just don't add up in our system.  And that's why there's slumps, that's why there's wars, and all these other dreadful things.  So I can imagine a much better world. But when you get down to practical details, it's harder...."

     I once asked another band this question (bizarrely enough,  Dinosaur Jr, of all people...) Can you imagine a situation where you would take up arms against the state?

    Laetitia: "The thing is that EVERYTHING must be used--your cleverness, the fact that you might be an acrobat...  Everything from weapons to the little money that you have that can be invested properly, to cunning tricks. So, weapons, yes. They have a whole army out there, a police force, and they don't hesitate to use them."

     Maybe the link between your interest in the Situationsts and the muzak & moog records is that very '60s sense of anticipation and excitement about the future. The Situationists' utopia was predicated on the idea of total automation leading to the abolition of work and a life of perpetual play. Which isn't so far from the idea of the comic book idea of the future, where your robot-butler brings your fried egg. The sleeves of the Moog records are full of techno-phile/neo-philiac, this-is-the-future iconography. It seems so naive now, but it's strangely touching and poignant.

    Tim: "It's just the idea of the future as strange because it's so totally non-traditional."

    Whereas now we know the future will be just like the past, only even more delapidated, and with hi-tech surveillance cameras in most urban areas.

   Laetitia: "That's the trouble, people don't believe in the future, they don't believe in revolution, or a better world, anymore.  They don't even want a better world. So therefore it's not gonna happen.  You have to want it first and to think it's possible, in order to make it come about." 


This isn't even all my Stereolab writing! Did a thing on them and the Charles Long exhibition The Amorphous Body Study Center for Artforum (the CD they did of the music for that might be my single favorite album of theirs) a review of Emperor Tomato Ketchup, a feature for Rolling Stone around that album.  

There can't be many artists I've written more about (Goldie? Who also got a single of the week the same week as 'Crumb Duck'. Young Gods? The Smiths / Morrissey, I guess... Aphex Twin...  in recent-ish times Ariel Pink. And oddly Royal Trux)