Saturday, June 18, 2005

… that book questionnaire reminded me of something I’ve been planning to do for a while, viz…

Blowing Other People’s Trumpets aka 2005's Bumper Book Crop

On a few occasions I’ve put forth the proposition that a musical genre’s vitality is in inverse proportion to the number of books written about. So I’ve been speculating semi-seriously about whether 2005’s impressive harvest of music books betokens some kind of across-the-board slide in popular music’s vital signs! Consider the near-synchronous arrival of hefty, definitive tomes on hip hop and disco, Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop [which also marks my debut as what the publishing industry charmingly calls a blurb-whore] and Peter Shapiro’s Turn The Beat Around. That’s, like, two massive zones of music history, done--bang, bang, nails in the coffin! Only slightly smaller in scope: Barney Hoskyns’s Hotel California: Singer-Songwriters & Cocaine Cowboys in the L.A. Canyons 1967-76, due in November on 4th Estate [another blurb from me]. This book focuses on the milieu of country-rockers and troubadours clustered around Laurel Canyon and David Geffen’s Asylum label--The Eagles, Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Warron Zevon, Judee Sill, Crosby Still Nash & Young, J.D. Souther, Tom Waits.... Yeah, it's surprising that nobody thought to do this already, considering it was, like, the biggest selling album-oriented rock of the American Seventies, and comes complete with a compelling narrative arc from Sixties dreams into decadence. Equally rich in potential (I can’t vouch for whether it’s been tapped or not) is the Detroit rock scene of MC5 and Stooges, as put through the academic ringer in David A. Carson’s
Grit, Noise, and Revolution : The Birth of Detroit Rock 'n' Roll, while Ashgate recently put out Michael Brocken's The British Folk Revival 1944–2002 (again no idea how well it's been executed). On the more fanciful or theory-driven level, there’s Alexander G. Weheliye’s Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity (Duke University Press, out any day now) which sounds like it could a penetrating probe into the Kodwozone, and Frank Kogan’s career-spanning anthology of speculations and provocations Real Punks Don’t Wear Black (University of Georgia Press, late this year). Also of note on the academic front: Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music, by Mark Katz (University of California Press) which got the thumbs-up from Alex Ross in New Yorker and Freedom of Expression: Overzealous Copyright Bozos and Other Enemies of Creativity, by Kembrew McLeod. Adding to the bounty by falsifying the year’s returns, as it were, two crucial reissues: Evan Eisenberg’s classic study of phonography and collector-itis The Recording Angel, and Joe Carducci’s indispensable Rock and the Pop Narcotic [both, you guessed it, endorsed by yours truly the blurb-slut].

This season, even the biographies and monographs are a cut above: Erik Davis’s fascinating treatise on Led Zep’s IV (in the Continuum 33 1/3 series) (the sigil stuff gets a bit much
but the portrait of Jimmy Page as sonic sorcerer, a studio-magus to rank with Perry, Macero or Hendrix-Kramer, is revelatory), while Michael Bracewell’s forthcoming Roxy book promises to be a treat.

As rich subjects go, Zep and Roxy are no brainers. Far more improbable was the arrival of compelling books on Laibach and Spacemen 3. From MIT Press, Interrogation Machine by Alexei Monroe (attention Kpunk: foreword by Slavoj Zizek!) scrutines not just the Slovenian band (still doggedly releasing records via Mute--Daniel Miller really is incredibly loyal to his artists, isn’t he?) but the whole NSK (Neu Slowenische Kunst) organization with its parody-of-totalitarianism (or are they for real? we'll never know), parallel art-collective Irwin, parallel dance troupe whose name I forget; the whole 20 years plus enterprise culminating in the creation of a fake nation-state complete with passports, paperwork, uniforms, flags, and for all I know their own gulags! You could say Laibach originate entirely from a single, er, single by Throbbing Gristle: “Discipline,” with its front sleeve pic of the group posing outside the building that once served as the Third Reich’s Ministry of Propaganda. And indeed Interrogation Machine reminds me a bit of Simon Ford’s Wreckers of Civilisation, both for its meticulous, unstinting detailedness and the powerful sense it conveys of industrial as the most content-heavy and intent-heavy form of music ever (in that sense, for all its refusal of rock’n’roll as sound, the most rockist form of music ever?) . I always thought Laibach the most ludicrous of groups (I recall reviewing their cover of “Sympathy for the Devil”, which came in about six preposterously over-orchestrated versions and took about 40 minutes to listen through, making doing the singles for MM even more of a dead-by-dawn ordeal; also saw them live once--the antlers! the belch-rasp vocals!). But this book almost makes me want to put on the recent Laibach Anthems collection for a reappraisal. Almost.

I think the Laibach gig was at the same West London venue, an out-of-the-norm place whose name I forget (a short stroll Thames-ward from Hammersmith Palais), that hosted my one-time-only live Spacemen 3 gig. That was a bit underwhelming too. But Erik Morses’ s Spacemen 3 & The Birth of Spiritualized (Omnibus) arrived early this year to remind me what a great group they were. This is another hyper-researched labour of love, full of fascinating details on the internal micro-politics of the drug scene in Rugby (no, really, it’s fascinating), the almightly battles of ego and struggles for creative control within the band (skillfully woven from overlapping and contradicting accounts from the different principals). plus a whole speculative theory element dealing with the Dreamweapon side of S3 (Morse referencing Artaud, Deleuze, the genealogy of the (schizo)drone, the necromancy of radiophony). Any book that starts with David Stubbs’ 1988 end-of-year Melody Maker oration to the effect that 1988 was the Best Year Ever for Rock (no, it’s true, we seriously believed that, and it’s any 25 year old’s right to believe that, any year, but you’ve got to make the case for it, which Stubbsy did, abundantly) is naturally off to a flying start with me. And certainly part of the appeal, for me personally, is that Dave Cavanagh Magpie Eyes-effect whereby some of the historical agents in this story are, like, people who I’d have rung up to blag records or get on the guest list! A buzz too to see the pic on page 208 (that was my idea, have them pose in front of the derelict synagogue down the road from my flat on Effra Road --the piece was going to be about the God/drug/love/salvation nexus, see. I remember Jason fleeing ghost-faced before the intervew proper began, and Sonic rolling a spliff in my living room, smoking it and not passing it around--not even to the rest of the band!). (Talking of which I just saw Pierce on Later with Jools, performing with a full gospel choir, a string quartet and a horn section--bejaysus! Ladies and gentlemen we are farting into space). Reading Morse's book, it's also nice to be reminded why junkies are so irritating (even when they’ve cleaned up and repented, almost without exception you can tell they’re secretly proud of their edge-walking exploits), and it's interesting to contrast the different receptions of S3 in Britain and America (where the cult was largely based on Sound of Confusion and Perfect Prescription--two records I’ve never quite clicked with, whereas Playing With Fire seems to be operating at a whole ‘nother level). Another thing I'd clean forgotten was that whole feud/taking-sides thing re. Loop versus Spacemen 3. Hampson clearly was an acolyte-admirer (and whether the Loop records stand up at all is one reason for my trepidation at the inevitable rediscovery of the late Eighties that awaits in the near-future). But the charge that Loop ripped S3 off seems silly if only because S3 themselves came so encumbered with debts to precursors, literally remaking a Stooges song into “OD Catastrophe” and signposting their Hallowed Ancestors with cover versions and citations galore.

Morse’s book arrived at a point earlier in the year when I was giving some thought to this idea of the Rift of Retro--trying to pinpoint when exactly a breach in the sense of rock temporality occurred, with an ever-largening amount of its attention going to its own past. Obviously there had been revivalisms and period stylists in rock for a long time, going back to Sha Na Na, or Creedence Clearwater Revival, and there had been instances where progressive artists took a step back and did period exercises or back-to-our-roots numbers (e.g. Beatles doing “Back In the USSR”). But at certain point in the early-to-mid Eighties it seemed like the leading edge of rock became the retreating edge of rock, as it were, i.e. the sort of bright, uber-hipster people that only a few years earlier would have been pushing the envelope, advancing, talking futurist talk, etc, started to do very precisely the opposite (I always think of the fact that Primal Scream's origins partially lie in a PiL-inspired band of Gillespie's). They were no longer forward-thinking, they were backward-thinking. In Rip It Up's afterchapter I pinpointed J&MC as a decisive moment in that rift-shift, but you could equally point to Spacemen 3, who were doing the same kind of rock-scholarly, heavily-citational work at the same time as J&MC but only started to get (UK) press attention some years later. Then again, you could equally argue that Orange Juice pioneered that pastiche approach, and that New Pop as a whole legitimized a heavily referential postmodern approach (think of ABC with their lyric borrowings from Smokey Robinson etc, or Scritti’s Percy Sledge “when a man loves a woman” sample in “Getting’ Havin’ and Holdin’”), and that this approach was then taken up by what became indie-rock. Of course, in so far as the past was a foreign country, unfamiliar to a lot of us who’d been so now-focused during punk/postpun/new pop, it felt like an adventure to explore Sixties and early Seventies music. It wasn’t a case of rediscovering this stuff, but discovery pure and simple, since we’d not lived through it (well biologically we had lived through the Sixties/Seventies, but not in the pop-conscious consumer/participant sense). But this feeling that some kind of collective decision was made to go back, and this being if not a turning point then a tipping point, chimes with my memories of how it went down at the time. Initially it was disorienting--I remember actually being disconcerted by how mundane the sound of The Smiths was, the plainness of drums and bass and jangly guitars, when I heard them for the first time on those Radio One sessions, compared with recent extravagances like the Associates, and it took me a while (and a Barney Hoskyns article actually) to fall in love with them (they became, of course, probably my favorite band of the Eighties). Increasingly I wonder if the rift-shift was something that could have been averted… or whether the retreat from the present somehow analogized the defeats of that particular present (the re-elections of Thatcher and Reagan), in the same way that so much of late Eighties and early Nineties independent rock was rooted in a kind of aestheticisation of surrender.

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