Monday, October 31, 2005

me on Wooden Wand & The Vanishing Voice and Comus

and the missus on Rome and Boondocks
this is worth looking at -- Pil miming 'poptones' + 'careering' and making mayhem (relatively speaking) on american bandstand in 1980

Thursday, October 27, 2005

A past gone mad, #1

Perusing the gig and tour ads at the back of Uncut is a dizzy-makingly anachronic experience. You get the most incongruous juxtapositions and unseemly adjacencies. Why, just on p. 173, divided into quarter-page ads, you'll find New Model Army, Seth Lakeman (whoever the fuck he might be), and Dreadzone rubbing shoulders with Bob Dylan. (Who you might have thought could afford a whole page of his own, i mean, Jesus, he just had a documentary on him that was some kind of world cultural event!!!). It seems like everybody's still treading the boards again: The Levellers, the Pogues (minus Shane), the Proclaimers, Was (Not) Was, Swing Out fucking Sister, Lee Scratch Perry, Jethro Tull. Durutti Column gets sandwiched in a bottom-of-page threesome with Kate & Anna McGarrigle and Eliza Carthy (well, foursome I suppose)! Sinead O' Connor with Sly & Robbie, and I don't mean ads next to each other, they're performing together, presumably they're her backing band!

Now, I don't begrudge Roy Harper his annual tour, though, some fifteen decent-sized venues across the UK. Don't begrude it one bit, and in fact if I lived in Britain I'd pay to see the man, never have had that pleasure. Hey Woebot, hey K-punk, you surely know, right, that Jeff Wayne is restaging your much-loved War of the Worlds across the country, April next year, with extra shows in response to public demand, later that summer? Delightful-sounding venues like the Glasgow Clyde Auditorium and the Bournemouth BIC, where'll he be conducting the Black Smoke Band and the 48 piece ULLAdubULLA Strings., Special guest Justin Hayward and Richard Burton in ghost form.

But all generations are catered for in this long night of the living dead. P. 170 has an almost conceptual unity, baggy-tastic and scally-delic, with Ian Brown in the upper right corner, Happy Mondays (plus support The Farm!) in the lower left, and Scousters The Coral and Echo & the Bunnymen squaring off in the middle. And bloody hell, directly opposite, a group called The Hacienda Brothers! (And I just learned that there's going to be a recreation of the Hac in all its pills'n'thrills'n'bellyaching glory, promoted by none other than Tony Wilson's young son Oliver. I would go if I lived in England, having never caught the Hac in its rave-on prime, but gone a little too early when it was still a little too indie). But I guess all this shouldn't be surprising, as it's just the live-music corollary of the retro-reissue explosion, an over-population of music with bands dying at too slow a rate c.f. the birth rate, and worse, many of them resurrecting. I suppose you can't blame 'em for having a second go, or trying to eke out a living; what else are they supposed to do? But it all contributes to what I increasingly feel is a key issue of our pop time, namely the erosion of a sense of time, of forward temporal propulsion.
Those lovely people (probably just person: James Nice, appropriately named) just reissued a late-period Ultramarine album . And yunno, 'spretty good, but I think they, like a lot of people by the mid-to-late 90s ,had gotten a bit lost in their gear and all the capabilities and options it presented.

1991's Every Man And Woman Is A Star , though--which LTM also reissued in wondrously glistening remastered form and I blogged about at almost the very start of this blog--sounds as timeless as ever. I dug it out the other week, actually, and you know what, I actually teared up at a couple of points. It was those samples that did, the ones they took from god-knows-what BBC 2 or Radio 4 documentary and detourned into commentaries on rave (despite Ian and Paul never being ravers or even clubbers themselves). You know the ones, “they’re looking for spiritual reasons, they’re looking for something more than this world has to offer” (I forget the tune that one's in) and of course that New Agey dance-therapy woman on “Stella” talking about her quest to find an emptiness "where I could begin again", about how she achieved spiritual rebirth through dancing: “I wanted it in this life, in this body, not tomorrow, not some other day, some other lifetime, I wanted it now, and I... I had to dance.” Swear to God, my eyes misted up. See, I’d clean forgotten that there was that whole transcendental, oceanic aspect to rave. That whole "cosmic dancer", ‘danced my way back into the womb" impulse. Oh yes, not forgetting those Kevin Ayers samples on "Weird Gear", “everyone is high until something makes them blue” and other fine sentiments.....

Yknow, Ultramarine were into this Brit-folk revival thing way WAY ahead of the pack. Before Every Man and Woman they did an album called Folk (although it had some inspiration to do with Wyndham Lewis, who wasn't exactly a nature boy). And as A Primary Industry, their pre-Ultramarine band, they did all this kind of wispy pastoral-tinged third-wave industrial meets On Land-y dark ambient to be honest quite unclassifiable stuff, somewhere between Dif Juz and Strafe Fur Rebellion. Joy has all the records; she interviewed Ian and Paul when they were API (lovely guys, apparently). Always meant to listen to those records. And her Dif Juz ones for that matter.

Ultramarine makes me think of Ultramarina, an excellent group I know nothing about. (In fact I got it real garbled, 'cos that's actually a record by someone else, now I think of it). Anyway, it came in a bunch of stuff from Mr. Jonathan Dale down under (whose blog is sorely missed) and what I did, for a change, was just listen to all it blind, knowing absolutely nothing about any of them. I could have just gone on the web but I was working on something else so opted to pop them in and play them. It was refreshing because it's the opposite of how I hear anything these days. There's usually a heap of context. This is a side effect of the web. Even doing a record review, the temptation is irresistible to do research. It's too easy. And with longer pieces, there's always the temptation to over-research. More than anything, it's a not-so-subtle form of procrastination (you feel like you are actually working but you're actually putting off the dread moment of writing!). But listening in this more pure-sound way was almost like a throwback to being at Melody Maker and stuff coming through the mail. In those days, I wouldn’t even read press releases (totally opposite to the cliche of the journalist who just rewrites the press release!). Often these were records that hadn't been written about elsewhere yet because they had only just come out or I'd got the white label or the tape. Or perhaps there was advance buzz in fanzines, which I hardly ever read. Either way, there was an element of an un-preconceived listening experience, the music existing purely as a blank slate, a Rorsasch blot for your projections. Well, I can see the advantages of both approaches. With context and research, the writing is more informed and "authoritative"; you know what the band is trying to do, maybe, or where they fit in. On the downside, it's a far less unmediated encounter between self and sound. Anyway, as an exercise I might try and see if I can write a whole review knowing nothing at all about the record or group, in a completely insulated bubble. Most likely, that's totally impossible.
Nice review of Ghostbox emanations at Stylus

Talking of which, this made my jaw drop! (It'll be gone by Monday, though).

Tangentially connected (MM to the other’s NME) here’s Pitchfork's Nitsuh Abebe on the case again, giving me those giddy-queasy feelings by excavating the history of another moment/movement (the first one was UK post-rock/"the lost generation") I actually lived through as a frontlines reporter: “anorak’n’roll” aka C86. In fact, one of my best friends was actually in a defining band of the era, Talulah Gosh, although I don't think they were on the cassette. (Cutie-shamblers stock rising + cassette retro-fetish = maybe I can finally sell all those copies of C86 I purloined from a cupboard in King's Reach Tower).
Frank Kogan’s book (don't have a heart attack when you clock the price, there's a ppbk version too) looks amazing at a quick skim. As you'd expect, it's highly unorthodox in its structure and provenance. As well as Village Voice reviews and Why Music Sucks rants, there's an email reply to Geeta, chunks of ILM commentary, interviews with the author from, unpublished Pazz N' Jop commentaries about 15 times longer than the longest blurbs they ever print, and--piece de resistance--a letter to Voice managing editor Doug Simmonds, with Kogan complaining that the paper is failing to utilise his intellect (the largest, Frank writes, and most self-questioning in all of rockcrit--bigger than Frith’s, bigger than mine, bigger than Bangs', and Meltzer's doesn't count because it's out of service!) to the fullest. All this and an acknowledgements list that takes in virtually everybody in this community and runs for pages. The dedicatee, naturally, is Chuck Eddy.
Sam Blatherwick says there’s at least one precedent for Go4’s Return: “In 1997 Sparks did a tribute album to themselves didnt they?... ummmmm... called plagiarism”. And Matos said it was common in R&B (but then only gives a coupla examples). I'm sure it's actually a routine showbiz thing, because in entertainment/variety, artists--I should say artistes--are known not so much for their recordings as for their songs, which they'd perform here there and everywhere: on TV variety shows, at nightclubs, and so forth. It's not a specific recording of the song that is their signature, but their interpretation, which they're accomplished and professional enough to be able to reproduce at the drop of a top hat, regardless of which band-leader or orchestra they're fronting. So I'd imagine people like Jack Jones or Max Bygraves or Perry Como, upon signing to a new label, might do an album reprising the songs most associated with their names. Which wouldn't bother an MOR audience, because it's all about the Song, the top-line melody (which is what copyright is vested in, in song publishing), and I wonder if
the differences in arrangement, production, recording aura, etc would even be audible to those listeners. In rock, however--and in pop, in all post-Beatles/Spector music perhaps--it's all about the record. (Trevor Horn, or was it Micky Most, used to go on about how they had the song, but they didn't have the record yet). Which is why we get very very attached to the specific aura of a recording--the precise vibe created by the meshing of instrumentation, arrangement, production, studio ambience, perhaps even the mood of that moment in time, as captured forever. Eno has commented on this, that remarkable ability whereby someone raised on rock/pop can identify a song within a second, purely on its sonority and aura, before enough of the melody has unfurled to recognise the tune. It's the timbre of the "band-voice" (Carducci's term). So that's why Return the Gift is a disconcerting listen, these are songs that you've cathected in their original incarnation, and now that element of eroticised haeccity is precisely what's been stripped from the re-recordings. (C.f. how people got livid, understandably, when the first CDs came out, and discovered that often ultra-perfectionist artists (with no 'e') such as Todd Rundgren or Frank Zappa had remixed the music, often adding all-new percussion.)

Which reminds me, those missing Slate-piece paras. Hardly essential, but what else is a blog for, and anyway why shouldn't I join the out-take "bonanza"/second-disc-of-inferior-material-you-deep-down-never-really-wanted retro-culture?

Two reasons why Return’s auto-plagiarism might make sense:

"When I saw Gang of Four perform earlier this year in New York, I was struck by how contemporary the lyrics felt, with their dissections of consumerism, militarism, the psychology of right-wing backlash, and so forth, and how depressing that was as an indice of our society’s advance since the late Seventies. Take “Natural’s Not In It,” a critique of the leisure and entertainment industry’s “coercion of the senses,” a mass-media and advertising barrage of hedonic imagery that causes singer Jon King to protest “this heaven gives me migraine.” The song is even more blisteringly applicable to today’s porno-fied popular culture than it was when the Gang first recorded it in 1979."


"The cycle of pop history has turned, putting Gang of Four in a position to get payback not just for the trademark infringements of today’s Go4-recyclers but earlier bands with heavy debts (the most successful being Red Hot Chili Peppers, who were such fans they hired Gill to produce their 1984 debut album). “Comrades, let us seize the time” is the tongue-in-cheek chorus of “Capital,” and Gang of Four have done exactly that."

and one last grim'n'uncanny irony:

"Return ends with “We Live As We Dream, Alone.” When Gang of Four first recorded it for 1982’s Songs of the Free, the track was a bleak evocation of the privatization of public life in the era of Reagan and Thatcher (who once famously declared “there is no such thing as society”). The ideal of the collective is at the heart of socialism, but it’s is also a big part of being in a rock band: all-for-one and one-for-all camaraderie, unity allied to a sense of purpose and destiny, the shared dream of making it and making history. The original “We Live As We Dream, Alone” can be heard now as a glimpse ahead to the break-up of the gang and the dispersal of its members into solo careerism. Resurrected as the final track of their comeback, the song seems pointedly to pose the question of whether the reunited Gang will stick around to see if they do have anything new to say, musically or lyrically, or whether they’ll simply go their own ways again. "
Tapes extra

Samuel Macklin of Blogglebumcage drops me a line to say, "I can GUARANTEE you that tapes have become a fetishitem. The old 'cassette underground' seems to be making a real resurgence. A lot of the free-folk/noise scene bands seem to be (re)turning to tapes in preference to CDRs--precisely, I suspect, because cassettes have basically disappeared from the mainstream. A lot of the labels specialising in limited run LPs and CDRs with hand-made artwork have started churning out tapes too.

some links
of course, the polarities underlying the previous post (meaning the one below) are explored, at a much more abstract, meta- level, in this thread
"Pilgrim soldier?" Well, I guess I inadvertently compacted two hymns together, “To Be A Pilgrim” (a boyhood favorite, despite being raised ferociously atheist) and “Onward Christian Soldiers”, in an attempt to evoke the puritanical crusading impulse that imbued a lot of hairshirt "pure" and/or minimal techno in the 90s. Now in German, the word for DJ booth means literally DJ pulpit. Minimal techno was Calvinist, stripping the Church of E (aka the House of God) of all its voluptuous Roman Catholic finery, its musical emaciation the equivalent of the Presbyterian move of turning an altar into a plain wooden table

Which connects, well kinda, with something I just read about the composer John Tavener (whose work I’m unfamiliar with, although long been intrigued by the fact that the Beatles signed him to Apple). Tavener is supposed to be the British equivalent of Arvo Part: minimal, ecstatic, vaguely medieval in its modern(ity/ism)-repudiating impulse towards Timelessness, a feather on the breath of god etc. Tavener made his most well-known works following his conversion to Greek Orthodox Christianity; he described one masterwork, The Protecting Veil, as "an attempt to make a lyrical ikon in sound". Mmmm, niiiice.

"Mittel Europa pleasure boy"? Unconscious but appropriate echo of the song by Visage (whose "Frequency 7" was a key tune for the first-wave Detroit techno guys, so making a cute loop through history, given the Europhile foundations of Detroit and, by extension Windsor, Ontario--and let's not forget that Hawtin actually is English). Hint of metrosexual homo-eroticism and Superpitcher/Mayer-esque ambiguity: all those slight, willowy German boys with very neat clothes and indeterminate orientations. (Whereas the homoeroticism of hardtechno is much more of the order of scouting movements, quasi-martial jugend with raw, wind-chapped knees and hard bodies; this is winter music, strenuous and sinewy). "Mittel Europa" could include Prussia (which my Berlin mate Tobias Rapp once identified as source for the disciplinarian streak running through German techno, only for me--repeating his idea elswhere--to get accused of trafficking in Germanic stereotypes by another German!). But there's nothing self-denying, anhedonic, or disciplinarian about Kompact-style microhouse. The word "micro" itself has a whole different tang to it than "minimal", there's no intimation of renunciation or austerity. "Micro" is evocative of exquisitely finessed design features that only the connoisseur appreciates, or even notices. The microhaus aesthetic is much closer to Des Esseintes, the dandy aesthete in Against Nature, than to Foucault's Discipline and Punish; closer to Italodisco's chic and subdued sensuality than to Die Krupps or EBM. Micro's decadence is a new kind that denies itself outright excess or debauchery because that would be in poor taste.
and now this too (says joe gross) (scroll down to tuesday 18th)

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

retromystique and the fetishisation of obsolete playback devices & blank media

first there was this book by thurston moore on the mixtape as bygone art form and objet de cathexis

then talk on dissensus about walkman chic versus incipient naffness of ipods

and talk elsewhere about the appeal of cassette-sound for its analogue warmth, possible collectability of pre-recorded cassettes, tapes as period signifiers, the cassette-only compilation as postpunk (touch, disques du crepuscule, etc) art form non pareil, etc etc

and now this!! ) (perservere past all the japanese characters installation bizniz and you will be amply rewarded with a feast for the eyes) (link courtesy of philip sherburne)

i can't honestly ever imagine this happening to the CD single or the cd-r for that matter, but who knows...
oh and here's joy and lynn jaeger's intro to the 50th anniversary special

oh and among the ever-increasing amount of bonus material that's being put up on the web but isn't contained in the hard-copy on-the-stands issue itself, an old piece by da missus on the mass-marketing of teengirl power

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

This past six weeks, the missus has been very busy, editing the 50th Anniversary issue of The Village Voice. Along with commissioning a raft of all-new essays (see the links below), the most challenging element of the project was selecting, excerpting, and weaving together a mosaic of archival pieces from 1956 to the present. Just physically hefting those ponderous hard-bound volumes, then sifting through their crumbling, perilously fragile pages, was a Herculean undertaking; that’s before you even get to the mind-strain of juggling different criteria (range of writers, diversity of fields of discourse, historical momentousness of subject) and winnowing down from a mass of photocopied features, piles of which have made her office and our living room unsightly and hard to navigate. Joy reckons she's physically handled getting on for 2000 issues of the Voice (which in the 70s and 80s ran to around two hundred pages an issue!). She had some helpers at the primary stage of trawling for pieces, but the tough narrowing-it-down decisions were hers. Liking few things more than flicking through old magazines I pitched in a bit with the trawling. Well, in truth, I would have loved to have taken a whole month off and spent it perusing every last volume in the Voice library, but was only able to check out a Oct-Dec 1975 here, a April-June 1982 there--a few years in total. That experience was both inspiring and depressing. On the one hand, the sheer amount of fantastic journalism--not just music criticism, which I had a special eye out for obviously, but all kinds of socio-cultural thinkpiecery--was staggering. It really made me wish the Voice would get smart to exploiting its own back pages and pull together a DVD box set of every issue ever like the New Yorker just did. On the other hand, it brought home the ephemerality of journalism and newspaper criticism, how for all the passion and skill put into it, it’s mostly only meant for its moment. The other depressing thing was being reminded of what the Voice had meant in the 70s, 80s, and still, fitfully, in the 90s; and how, as bohemia fragmented (one of the best pieces, from '92, excerpted in the mosaic, is C.Carr’s classic "The Bohemian Diaspora") and the broader culture’s centre of gravity shifted to the right, the place it occupied in the scheme of things got eroded away. I can’t think of hardly any other magazines, at least in my lifetime, that fulfilled that function--of being the place where everything that might conceivably matter to people of disparate progressive/radical/boho/pretentious persuasions would get covered in a charged up context where internecine dissension was valued as much as extra-nicine dissent, and where style and verve mattered as much penetration and insight. The NME perhaps, had something of that function and that vibe, in the UK at least, for a little less than ten years, albeit mostly through the prism of music; and for all I know, the post-hippie and pre-decollectivized Time Out did (its still-collectivized offshoot City Limits certainly would have liked to have been the Village Voice of London, while the new yuppie-fied Time Out would eventually import itself to New York and exert market pressure on the Voice to become more like it). Today, I can’t think of any magazine that fulfils that role, which is perhaps why many of the essays linked below have a pained elegiac note towards their end....

Okay, on with the retro-fiesta:

Here's just the pick of the overview essays:

Greg Tate on black journalism

Robert Christgau on rock(& etc) criticism

Alisa Solomon on gay liberation

J. Hoberman on cineasterie

and (especially good, this) Ellen Willis on feminism

Decade-long instalments of the archival mosaic:

1956 to 1965

1966 to 1975

1976 to 1985

[some of the pieces have the full text on the web as opposed to far smaller excerpts in the paper --e.g. check for the entirety of Christgau’s punk UK report ]

1986 to 1995

[full text of that C. Carr 'Bohemian Diaspora' piece as mentioned above]

1996 to 2005

Bonus web-only bit: selections from VLS

And finally:

A one-per-year slideshow of front covers from Jan 1956 to the present

(You really need to get a physical copy of the issue if you can to fully appreciate these in all their yellowed and frayed-and-torn-round-the-edges glory, plus the whole archival mosaic is designed in retro typefaces that change with each ten-year bloc)
hair there and everywhere: the coiffure chameleons

Lil Kim, rocking dreads and ripping off "Jamrock" with her new single "Lighters Up" . Well, braids, at least, among several other wigs, but definitely a more conscious/organic look than her usual robo-ho image.

A monograph could be written on the last 15 years of techno as dramatised by changes in Richie Hawtin's hairstyle: the transition from the austerity and rigour of the tekno slaphead look to the hedonic-ironic Neu Romantique look he now favors. From hardcore for the headstrong 'n' hairless circa the classic early Plus 8/FUSE material right through spartan hard-grind uber-minimalist techno to a metrohaus-attuned dandyism-but-subtle-and-restrained; from MidWest pilgrim soldier to Mittel Europa pleasure boy.
from "Doubt Beat" to the bio-riddimatic pulse of Third Way Kapital!

weirdly paralleling the post-Go4 careers of Jon King and Dave Allen, have a look at
what Tom Morley ex-Scritti drummer does for a living these days (click on 'drumming' especially)

Still got those dreads though!

(Thanks Andrew James for the tip-off)

King, meanwhile, just got a new job

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Me on Gang of Four's Return the Gift. Out-takes from the piece later this week.

As eerie as the record itself has been seeing the ads on VH1 for Go4's VH1-Classic-sponsored tour of America. Eerier still, the Gang appearing on one of those Vh1-Classic interview-segments-interspersed-between-lotsavideos programmes, just like they were Glenn Tilbrook or Joe Jackson or XTC or any of those almost-but-not-quiters from that era. When they finally showed a G04 video, though, it was unfortunately one from the Hard era, when they were trying to be Heaven 17: images of them looking uncomfortable and unconvincing in a nightclub.

Eeriest of all was seeing Go4 play a few weeks ago at the Hard Rock Cafe, a CMJ-affiliated event. What a ghastly place: a garish mausoleum of retro, framed pictures of Janis and Jimi and Jerry (Garcia, that is) on the walls. Then the Gang stepped onstage to stake their claim on history as the sternest band ever. No opening pleasantries or "hello New York" for them! Andy Gill's perfected this sort of pursed-lip Alan Rickmansworth pout-scowl; Jon King's developed this odd stage manner of dashing about and then halting with a peevish, harried look in his eyes, like a teacher dealing with an out of control class and on the edge of flipping his lid; Hugo Burnham just stares into the middle distance with this grim dead-eyed look mixing down-to-business and disdain. Only Dave Allen acts it up with stage moves that are the tiniest bit rock'n'roll. The severity thing is Go4's claim to greatness, which makes it weird to see all the fans grooving ecstatically to lyrics like "sometimes I'm thinking that I love you/but I know it's only lust" and "your kiss so sweet/your sweat so sour". G04 were good, as they were at Irving Plaza earlier in the year, but there was something ultimately kinda disconcertingly dead about the whole thing. Partly the venue; partly the whole retro anachronesis syndrome as discussed in my Slate piece. But also it became clear there's a sonic deficiency: he's perfectly fine on record (then and now, with Return), but live Burnham's drumming doesn't add anything to the sound, any push or thrust. The dynamism in the sound comes entirely from Allen's bass and especially the jaggedness of Gills' guitar. Those two are the rhythm section in Gang of Four.


Also check out the October issue of Frieze for my piece on Ghostbox. Somewhere down the line I'll probably put the raw material for the piece--interviews with Julian House and Jim Jupp--up here.