Tuesday, March 26, 2024

The Future


The Golden Hour of the Future
(Black Melody)

Uncut, 2002

by Simon Reynolds

It began with musical vomit in the meatwhistle. 

That sounds gross, and possibly perverse: let me elaborate. 

Musical Vomit, a noise/Dada/proto-punk ensemble, was Ian Craig Marsh's first group, and it was spawned and nurtured at  Sheffield's Meatwhistle, a  Council-funded arts laboratory/performance space for bright teenagers. Post-Vomit, Marsh teamed up with fellow electronics enthusiast Martyn Ware as The Future. Then, with a haircut called Philip Oakey displacing original singer Adi 'Clock DVA' Newton, the Future evolved into The  Human League: the first post-punk group to loudly talk up Pop as a Better Way, only to spend three years of thwarted agony as an, ugh, "cult band" (a dirty word in League lingo), all the while watching synthpop peers like Numan and OMD and even John bloody Foxx beat them to the charts. In the face of internal acrimony and creative deadlock, it took an inspired management suggestion (by Bob Last, whose Fast Product label had released the debut single "Being Boiled") to transform one quasi-pop failure into two massive, fully bona fide pop successes: the Human League of "Don't You Want Me", the Heaven 17 of "Temptation".

These 1977 basement tapes, dating from before Marsh/Ware/Oakey even had a record deal, are fascinating because they show how post-punk was in large part simply the resumption of progressive and art-rock, after the brief back-to-basics blip of ramalalama three-chord rock that was punk. It's not insignificant that the League were signed by Virgin (alongside Charisma and Harvest one of the premier prog-rock imprints,  home of Henry Cow and Tangerine Dream).  By 1979 Virgin had smoothly repositioned itself as a premier label for  "modern": basically, prog with better hair, streamlined sonic aesthetics,  and a  less-is-more attitude to musical chops. So the title of one tune on this CD, "New Pink Floyd", isn't entirely ironic.

What decisively shifted them pop-wards was hearing Giorgio Moroder. Opening track "Dance Like A Star" resembles a homespun "I Feel Love", cobbled together in a garden shed.  "This is a song for all you bigheads who think disco music is lower than the irrelevant musical gibberish and tired platitudes that you try to impress your parents with", announces Oakey, "We're the Human League, we're much cleverer than you." His sneer makes plain the streak of hipster one-upmanship behind pro-pop proselytizing: basically, highbrows aligning themselves with lowbrow pulp and against middlebrow student notions of "cool" and profundity. Driven by an idea of pop, The Human League only reached it when they found their own Moroder in Martin Rushent.

In these spindly song-sketches and buzzing lo-fi instrumentals from 1977---half-a-decade before "Love Action" and "Fascist Groove Thang"---what you hear is a group that has as much  in common with Faust and Heldon as with Abba and Chic (the reference points circa Dare and Penthouse and Pavement). Much of Golden Hour is brilliant; the remainder is either charming or, at bare minimum, interesting. Standouts include the early Cabaret Voltaire-like pulse-maze of "Daz";  the doomy, tenebrous 23rd Century Gothick of "Future Religion"; an instrumental version of the Four Tops "Reach Out (I'll Be There)" that's like Joe Meek at his  most ethereal;  "Blank Clocks", an experiment in automatic lyric-writing, in which a restricted number of nouns ("blank", "time", "heart", "face",  "clock", "talk", etc) and qualifiers ("my", "your", "the", "a") reshuffle in endless combinations. 

Best of all is the closing "Last Man on Earth": ten minutes of cold electronic beauty that fully lives up to the poignancy and desolation of its title. Overall, Golden Hour shows how under-rated both Human League and Heaven 17 (just check Side Two of Penthouse, essentially an extension of Reproduction/Travelogue) have been as electronic pioneers. "We are the Human League, there are no guitars…"

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Libération Q et A


What is the first record  you bought in your youth with your own money ?

Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Do It Yourself, 1979

Your favorite way for listening to music ? (MP3, CD, vinyl, radio for example) ?

Radio – London pirate stations in the 1990s,  listening to rap or classic rock in the car in Los Angeles today.

The last record you bought?

Last vinyl was Some British Accents and Dialects (BBC, 1971) [listen here and here]. 

Last digital was Beatriz Ferreyra, Echos+ (Room40, 2020). 

Where do you prefer to be when you are listening to music?

 I like to be doing something that occupies me physically but leaves me mentally open to the music – in the kitchen, cooking, is ideal.

A mascot/favorite record to start the day with ?

Sacred, “Do It Together (London Massive)”, 1992

Do you need music for work or do you prefer silence ?

Usually I’m listening to what I’m writing about, but for pure acceleration as the deadline approaches, hardcore rave and jungle tapes that I made off pirate radio in the early Nineties maintain my pace and sustain my spirits.  

The song you feel a bit ashamed to listen to with pleasure ?

I don’t feel shame about liking anything, because – through solipsistic logic – I conclude that if I like it, it must be good. But if pushed, I would admit that enjoying “Rock You Like A Hurricane” by the Scorpions feels slightly embarrassing.

The record that everybody likes and that you despise ?

I can’t think of a record that everybody likes – there’s always a contrarian these days who’ll say “this is overrated”. I’m actually struggling to think of a record I despise. Panic! At The Disco’s “High Hopes” is fairly horrific, but I’m sure many would actually agree with me.

The records you need to survive on desert island ?

I made it records plural because it’s too hard to pick just one. Miles Davis, In A Silent Way. Joni Mitchell, The Hissing of Summer Lawns. John Martyn, Solid Air.

 What cover art would you frame at home like a piece of art ?

Electronic Panorama, a Prospective 21e Siecle series box set released by Philips in 1970. I don’t have it framed but the silver metallic box is displayed on a shelf in our living room.

Your best memory of a concert ?

Daft Punk making their US debut at the Even Furthur rave in the wilds of Wisconsin, 1996.

Do you go in a club to dance, listen to music on a big sound system, to chat up… Or you never go in the clubs ?

I used to go to clubs and raves all the time. But now hardly ever. When I went, it was to dance and to do certain other things people at raves do. But also increasingly I went as a participant-observer, the use the anthropologist’s term. To read the living text of the crowd, decode the rituals.  

What is the record you share with your significant other in your live ?

Too many, but among the core shared favorites are Pixies, Cocteau Twins, Aphex Twin, A.R. Kane, Fleetwood Mac, Saint Etienne, Omni Trio, Orbital, Ultramarine.

The track that makes you mad with rage ?

I cannot think of one at the moment. There are tracks that make me rage with madness, in a good way, i.e. Dionysian frenzy – The Stooges’s “TV Eye”, Beltram’s “Energy Flash”, Future’s “Fuck Up These Commas”.

The last record you listened to over and over again ?

Thin Lizzy, “My Sarah”.

The band you wish you have joined ?

Often the bands that do great things that I’d have been thrilled to be involved in creating also have nasty internal struggles and a long periods of misery and decline. So I will say the Wilson Sisters, a very short-lived conceptual outfit started by friends of mine, with whom I did the Oxford pop journal Monitor. But I had moved to London so missed their one and only  recording session.

The piece of music that makes you cry ?

The Smiths, “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”. Runner up: Kraftwerk, “Neon Lights”.

Do you know what drone metal is ?

Sunn O))) ?

Quote the lyrics of a song you know by heart ?

The whole lyric? I’m not sure I know every last word in this, but I know most of it. This is just one bit:  “Why in the world are we here? Surely not to live in pain and fear. Why on earth are you there? When you're everywhere, come and get your share. But we all shine on, Like the moon and the stars and the sun, And we all shine on. On and on and on and on.” (“Instant Karma”, John Lennon)

Name three of your favorite songs ? 

Sly and the Family Stone “Everyday People”, Foul Play “Open Your Mind (Foul Play Remix)”, The Sweet “Ballroom Blitz”.