Wednesday, November 27, 2002

It’s a swizz, bruv! A dissenting Londoner's eye view from Matthew Ingram. “For your info the tempo of the pirates has dropped right down. It’s all crappy Swizz Beatz remakes with bad rapping." Heard a few tracks like this coming through this summer—torpid tempo tunes with doomy fanfare riffs like the theme from Rocky. For some reason, the cheap’n’nasty production values that work with UK garage (and jungle/hardcore before), giving the music it’s ruff-and-ready, made-in-two-minutes charm, only make British rap and R&B efforts sound thin and weedy next to the megabuck phatness of US hip hop (the sheer size of sound in Ludacris's "Move", say). One reason UKG kids have picked up on Swizz and Ludacris must be that elements on those records—certain stab patterns and techno-y sounds—feel ravey. Those down-swooping drones in “Southern Hospitality”, the way “What’s Your Fantasy” actually sounds like a hardcore tune at 16 rpm.

Matthew further avers there's a large hole in my “punk garage” thesis: “hardly anyone is listening to it. HMV on Oxford Street has quartered their Garage bin. ‘There's just no demand for it’ one employee told me”. Well, yeah, 2step’s pop heyday is long gone. But I bet the basement of Blackmarket, or the little UKG specialist shops all over the East End or down Croydon way, are doing as brisk a trade as ever. Wall to wall white labels, of course, the titles written in black marker pen. It does seem like the scene’s gone way WAY underground again: pre-releases that never get properly released, whites that stick around for a few weeks and then that’s it, gone forever. Pirates making their own plates and not letting anybody else have the tunes, just like the reggae sound systems back in the day. If you want to hear it you got to stay locked. Make a tape.

More than anything, this moment--all those So Solid soundalikes with superfast sinuous rapping and warbly male R&B vox coming in at the chorus (very like punk with its glut of Sex Pistols xeroxes), all the abject B-line trax with "detuned churning lower frequencies" that Matthew says make him feel like puking--reminds me of ten years ago, the tail end of ’92. Hardcore, which had been top of the pops all summer, now untouchable, the lowest of the low. A market glutted with white labels, an awful lot of the music pure shite (but also weird one-offs that you hear once and never again, dubplates whose perpetrators suddenly pulled them off the market). Retrospectively, as old skool fiends, we can pick through the dung-stack and find the gems, and even the second-rate and third-rate stuff from '92/93 has appeal---nostalgic charm, historicity, plus we know with hindsight where this was all heading; you can listen to Goldie’s Phil Collins-sampling and truly lousy debut effort and track the lines that connect it to the Darkrider EP or “Terminator.” At the time, though, the output of pirate radio often did sound like an avalanche of garbage, the febrile entropy of a culture devolving. But you could dimly sense that this roiling soupy protoplasm might just be the primordial swamp out of which new life-forms would coalesce. I’d like to the imagine that the cruddy 88 percent of gutter-garridge is actually working like compost, fermenting the new. Shit music as cultural manure! So big up the sewage crews. It's a dirty job but somebody's gotta do it.

Youth of the nation. Check out the riotous code-flow of the text-mess massive. (Link courtesy of Sci-Fi Paul). Seems like literally thousands of crews are springing up across the land, a swarm of ravenous-to-make-it MCs. Dizzy Ras, Rolldeep and Wiley run t'ings this season; "heavyyyyy" and "grimy" and "going on terrible" are all jolly fine things to be or do. And I wonder if this "Demonbass" tune that one chap keeps shamelessly plugging is any cop or not.
Re. the name game, I forgot the obvious option: "punk garage", as coined by Basement Jaxx. Which also makes a neat conceptual contrast with all the nouveau garage punk: real insurrection versus pseudo-rebellion, the genuinely new versus the merely trendy. Vines and Stripes made the covers of Rolling Stone and Spin, but for roughly eight million reasons it'll never happen to So Solid or Pay As U Go.
My mate Paul "Sci-Fi Soul" Kennedy tells me there actually is a garage rap outfit called Sewage Cru.... Can't get much more underground than that!

Tuesday, November 26, 2002

The truth is only known by guttersnipes. As a name, gabba-gangsta-garage ain’t really happening, let’s be honest. Somewhat facetiously, my friend Matthew Ingram suggests “spunk”: speed garage + punk. Well, it would certainly fit with the sexual, er, politics of a scene that has given us anthems like "Ho’s Don’t Mean Shit To Me“ and "Swallow” (“it’s not my fault that I spray like Mace/it’s not my fault that I cum in your face”). (For the Americans out there: spunk doesn't mean "chutzpah" in the U.K., it means man-juice. So be careful the next time you're over there and feel like praising some girl as a "real spunky chick"). For a twist on the rave-punk subtext, I kinda like “crunk rock”, ‘cos it plays on the Dirty South influence and general brock-out raucousness of the music. I have a feeling “shady garage” might actually achieve some currency, initially as a pejorative used by outsiders, then embraced and revalorized by the scene itself. But if actual frequency of use was the process by which words attach themselves to genres and become their names, then the smart money would be on “gutter” to be the ultimate victor. It actually sounds a bit like “gabba”, especially the expectorant way it’s pronounced: “GUT-TAH!!!”. And it’s perfect conceptually, because it signifies one level lower than the streets, and what could be more "real" than that? Well, there is the sewer….

Sunday, November 24, 2002

Interesting piece on UK pirate radio, which is apparently bigger than ever. Indeed, so congested are the London airwaves, stations are spreading deep into the suburbs and beyond. Especially noteworthy in this piece is the distinction made by Essex station Stealth FM between “happy garage” and “shady garage”. The latter is exactly the gabba-gangsta-garage strain I’ve been talking about as rave's very own punk. Even if it’s just a rumor, an urban myth, the story related about a “shady” pirate whose base of operations is located inside a crack den, is deeply revealing about the waves of apprehension and revulsion this music is already creating. There used to be the exact same (crypto-racist) rumours about darkcore and ragga-jungle, of course---that it was “crack music”, that only fiends and rock-smokers could keep up with the insane tempo. ( Mind you, it could be true, for all I know: cocaine being 2step’s drug of choice, and the drug having its own infernal logic of escalation). When the Stealth FM deejay talks about how "happy garage" (presumably meaning early 2step and pop-crossover UKG) attracts "uplifting people who want to be uplifted" as opposed to the moody rude-boys into the shady stuff, I started flashing on Vibes, Slipmatt, Dougal and Hixxy. Hardcore was pop music that suddenly plummeted from the charts and plunged into the shadows, leaving bereft a vast national audience who didn't want to follow the darkside path pursued by the London massive. It's easy to imagine a nationwide network of “happy garage” raves developing just like happened with happy hardcore: people who wish it could stay 1999—2step at its peak of buoyancy and effervescence—FOREVER. And who could blame them, really?

Thursday, November 21, 2002

Rave-Punk: Two Years Old Already? Like the original punk, any rave-punk contender worth its salt would have to work as both a return and a reversal; as simultaneously the resurrection/renewal/intensification of rave-as-musical-style, and the total jettisoning or inversion of all its values. Gabba-gangsta-garage fits the bill. Sonically, it’s full of hardcore echoes (the Belgian tekkno bombast, the caustic acieed bass, the death-ray riffs that hark back to “Dominator”, Reinforced, even PCP). In every other respect, the subculture is anti-rave. Empathogen-enhanced tenderness is replaced by coke-numbed callousness; open minds and hearts give way to the barricaded self-as-fortress (there’s actually an MC called Armor!). This music is “fuckin’ hostile”, to borrow the title of a gabber classic---not loved-up but hated-up.

In terms of sexual politics, rave’s angelic asexuality/androgyny has been swapped for a starkly gender-polarized universe of lechery mixed with misogyny (pirate anthem “Swallow”, about girls who do, gives the Hot Boys a run for their Cash Money when it comes to sheer horny malice), spiced with rampant homophobia (so much for garage’s roots in gay disco culture). The “feminine pressure” aspect that was so refreshing and striking in 2step (its lover’s rock sweet melodiousness, the ladies-first deference) has been totally reversed, with a drastic remasculinization of every aspect of the music and culture. The bump’n’flex, the sexy swing, has stiffened into the phallomorphic rigor mortis of beats that are inspired by, or unwittingly resemble, electro and gabba. Treble frequencies are purged to revel in a bass-too-dark undertow as viscose and lethal as that oil slick off the coast of Portugal. Lyrically too, gabba-garage is alpha-male predatory to the most gloating and vindictive degree. Just check lyrics like these from a Horra Squad freestyle: “Every weekend I got your girlfriend freaking…. Creeps back to you later that evening/Kiss her on the lips and you’re tasting my semen.” Not that there aren’t girls who spar with the rude boys, like Horra’s foulmouthed and cruel-tongued Tough Chick. And the he-said/she-said verses in Dizzy Rascal’s “I Love You” present an evenly matched war-of-the-sexes when it comes to sourness and derision.

Horra Squad are the resident MC collective on Horra FM, one of the most hip hop-aligned UKG pirate stations in London (they even have station idents from American rappers like Jadakiss). The Squad have this little catch phrase which seems acutely resonant. “Horra FM: keepin’ it separate”, Tough Chick boasts at the end of one of the station’s jingles. Or MCs will just declare “Separate!” as a sort of freefloating praise-word or expression of triumph. “Separate” suggests being both apart and above. This is rap’s defining superiority complex, its fantasy of absolute distinction, utter uniqueness (my style identical to none), and total unapproachability. “Separate” as ethos couldn’t be further from rave’s “only connect” spirit. Instead of rave’s “communism of the emotions”, the egalitarianism of its anonymous collectivity, what it proposes is a thugged-out aristocracy of the streets, lording it over the small-fry horde of haters and nonentities. Community and communion shrink to at best the feral solidarity of the gang.

None of that rave-era “crowd-as-star” crap; everybody wants to shine in the spotlight, make it to the top. All those MCs nursing identical cookie-cutter fantasies of transmedia success, launching their own Jay-Z style dynasties, bringing up their crew behind ‘em like Eminem and Nelly did (or tried to). Each proclaiming his uniqueness and distinction in that totally generic dibby-dibby first-syllable stutter-style of UKG rhyming.

Perhaps the truest mark of gabba-gangsta-garage’s break with rave-as-was is the return of the MC to the forefront and focal position, and the new dominance of WORDS over SONIX. In rave, the MC—crawling from the wreckage of the acieeed-eclipsed Britrap scene of the late Eighties—survived the Nineties by taking on a subservient role, praising the DJ and hyping the crowd. Ever so slowly the MC shed this menial, accessory function and clawed his way back to the dominant position. (No wonder the old-school speed garage superstar DJs like Dreem Teem were so threatened by Oxide & Neutrino: they could see it was going to cut into their earnings one day). Rave music has a tendency towards the wordless, favoring instrumentals over songs and using the human voice as an instrument (orgasmic texture-riffs of abstracted diva). If there are words, rave (and house) tends to go for inane chants and catchphrases. Compare and contrast with the rabid, foaming-at-the-mouth wordiness of “garage rap”. On the pirate shows especially, there’s a sort of virulent verbosity, the music almost drowned out by the prolix gabble of metaphor and simile. You really get a vivid sense of the expression “spitting”—there’s a compulsive expectorant quality to the freestyles, like the MCs are discharging truly toxic stuff, feelings from the sewer of the soul. And there’s that quality of desperation too, as with So Solid’s “21 Seconds”; ambition squeezing through a tiny aperture of opportunity. The pinched mean-ness of the MC’s flow is very English—mean both in its lyrical content, and in the delivery: a meagre-ness of grain, an inhibited tightness of delivery (so much less expansive and regal than American MC-ing), like their very throats have narrowed like slitted skrewface eyes.

Like punk and hip hop before it, gabba-gangsta-garage revels in linguistic inversions: its current lexicon of praise words and superlatives includes “gutter”, “messy”, “horrible”, “disgusting”, “stinking’”. When Wiley & Roll Deep boast about being “terrible”, they don’t mean they’re performing poorly but terrible as in Ivan. Just check the Vicious and Rotten-like names of the groups: Heartless Crew, Nasty Crew, Slew Dem. As if in a nod to DMX, the matey greeting “bruv” has turned to “blood” -- as in "it's messy, blood!" or "ya get me, blood?"-- the word spelling out the sanguinary fraternity of gangsta culture, the bonds of shedding other’s and being prepared to shed your own.

Oh, there’s lots of neat crit-pleasing historical parallels; So Solid Crew as Sex Pistols (complete with violence-riddled gigs and banned tours); droll yarn-spinning Mike Skinner as Ian Dury, loved by everyone outside the scene but not rated by the real punks; feisty-turned-worthy Ms. Dynamite as Tom Robinson Band. And what could be more UK punk-like than this music’s manifest destiny of abject commercial failure in America (despite being highly influenced by gangsta rap, as UK punk was by New York punk). Except it’s worse today: Never Mind the Bollocks dented the Billboard Top 200, but So Solid can’t even get a fuckin’ deal in the States. Another nifty parallel: where punk identified with roots reggae and dub, gabba-gangsta-garage has dancehall to draw on as a reliable reservoir of new rhythmic tricks and fresh slanguage for its homophobic tendency.

Of course, a crucial point to make that this is not the Next Thing, it’s the Right Now/Already Well Underway thing. I’d say we’re already approaching the end of “1977”, the year of both the explosion and the (temporary) bubble-burst. So Solid feel like they’ve dropped off a tiny bit (puff pieces for the solo stars in the colour supplements), just like the Pistols did. The hits aren’t quite as big. There’s a sense of the sound going back into the underground to an extent, and festering there.

I’d break it down like this: 2000 was ‘75, with breakstep as pub rock, a briefly exciting, ultimately backward-looking Non-Direction (Deekline as Dr Feelgood, Stanton Warriors Ducks Deluxe?). 2001 was ‘76: So Solid as the Pistols, and a handful of hits from the Damneds and Stranglers of the scene, like Pay As U Go Kartel. 2002 was ’77: the revolution in full effect, hundreds of bands following the New Wave template, but surprisingly scanty chart action (the real 1977 was the year of Bee-Gees, Abba, Boney M and such).

Key turning points for the new sound’s emergence were Oxide & Neutrino’s “Bound for Da Reload” and So Solid’s pre-fame pirate smash “Dilemma”: UK garage in only the most nominal sense, owing nothing to house ’n’ garage either rhythmically or attitudinally. Steeped in electro, those tunes instantly erected a massive generation gap; most older UKG fans were baffled, affronted, massively turned off. Like punk, this is a kids sound. My spies tell me the 16 year olds get well rowdy on the floor when Dizzy Rascal or Musical Mobb drop, damn near trashing the joint. “Hooligan house” is one correspondent’s nickname for it. Now where have I heard that phrase that before?

Seeing More Fire Crew on Top of the Pops earlier this year (hooray for BBC America!!!) doing their AWOL-style-jump-up-junglizsm-turned-into-Britrap-Y2K-stylee anthem “Oi!” was as alien and uproarious as seeing The Angelic Upstarts play “Teenage Warning” live on TOTP. And “Oi!” as song title: how perfect is that? Big catchphrase on the ‘ardkore scene too.

The next wave of groups, I wager, are going to make right-now-incredibly-exciting outfits like K2 Family, GK Allstars and Highly Inflammable seem as tame as Eddie & the Hot Rods and The Vibrators did by 1978.

Just like punk rock, gabba-gangsta-garage is telling us some very ugly things about life in the UK, and like punk (especially the Oi! strand) it defends itself using the timehonoured “reality” clause: “we’re just showing what it’s like out there on the streets. We’re not glamorizing it, honest”. Yeah, right. So “big shout to the violent crew” and lyrics like “say anything and your face gets opened” (and that's Tough Chick! ) are just social realism.

Perhaps I haven’t made it sound very appealing. But then if I’d lived through the hippie era like I partook of the rave dream-and-lie, I’d probably have had some serious ambivalences about punk. And I recall that, however much the liberal media establishment (Guardian, New Society, BBC etc) eventually came around to punk as a legimitate expression of working class frustration blah blah, at the time a huge part of punk’s appeal (to suburban 15 year olds like myself at any rate) was the idea of it as sheer wanton evil: the monstrousness of Sid Vicious; Rotten’s “I wanna destroy”; McLaren’s amoral mischief-making and “cash from chaos”. Punk as terrorism and tyranny.

The last two are what the 3 G Sound (gabba-gangsta-garage) are all about.

So yes, this is the antithesis of rave. And yet the music raves, it’s raving mad.

Tuesday, November 19, 2002

Interesting take by Philip Sherburne on the Missy Elliott album. Interesting partly because he seems to be the only person I know who isn’t hugely disappointed by the record (quite the opposite in fact, which makes me keen again to hear it). And partly for his Carducci-like critique of our trend-obsolescing obsession with novelty (as opposed to consolidation/continuity/tradition-maintenance). My favorite line, on the “hazy pall” in the cultural sky: “if the color were a Crayola it would be called Who Cares Gray, or Over It Dun”.

Sunday, November 17, 2002

Microstep versus gabba-garage. Pipped to the post by that fucker Jess Harvell (scroll down to Friday Nov 15) with his OTM comments re. Horsepower Productions’s debut album In Fine Style. I must admit I was secretly hoping to be unimpressed by the record, but no such luck: the production could be a bit beefier, but it’s very very listenable, one of the year’s best. As Jess says, it’s basically headphone garage: like microhouse, all about lustrous textures, exquisite details, and that non-localised aura of warmth and finesse that househeads of all stripes love. The drum’n’bass parallel that occurred to me wasn’t Optical, though, but another Metalheadz affiliate, Hidden Agenda—the same cinematic feel (Horsepower’s blacksploitation track “Pimp Flavors” is a chip off the exact same block as Hidden Agenda’s “Is It Love?”). Horsepower’s rhythmic richness recalls that prime period in drum'n'bass's life cycle, the season of Source Direct, Dillinja, V & Full Cycle, et al, when the breakbeat science was needlepoint intricate, but had yet to get so complex and involuted that the groove was totally lost. Likewise, Horsepower seem to be carrying on where Dem 2 and Groove Chronicles left off circa “Bad Funk”, “Black Puppet”, “Masterplan”, “Grunge Dub”: late 1999, 2step at its absolute zenith of aesthetic maturity.

So it’s a great record. Still, I can’t help but find somewhat depressing the way a kind of class-based determinism in UK dance culture made “intelligent 2step” such a predictable upshot. It was just inevitable that some folk would pull the Bukem/Photek/Speed move, refining out all the bits (R&B and ragga) that A/ weren’t applicable to their own lives and B/ were likely to draw an "undesirable" crowd. Without ever having gone to a club that specializes in this dubstep strand, I can just tell that what you’d get is a night of supreme taste and zero vibe. Not an anthem in earshot, just endless subtleties.

I’m more of a crudities man, myself, of course. In yer face, blatant, bombastic---all good terms in my lexicon. Which brings me back to the reason I was sorta kinda hoping to dislike Horsepower's record. See, I think the people championing this microstep/dubstep sound are backing the wrong horse. Because the gabba-garage stuff can’t be beat for sheer raw excitement, and it has all the trouble-some elements of vibe and social energy and extra-musical resonance that purist/minimalist offshoot styles always banish, consciously or unconsciously. Now Jess could be right, and gabba-garage could just be the No U Turn of UK garage, a dead end (remember the exhilaration of No U tunes in '96, though, how it didn’t feel like a dead end at the time). But I reckon the role of MC-ing in this music is the crucial X Factor that could make this sound a Real New Direction.

Because really this is a three way collision: garage/gabba/gangsta. Southern rap (Cash Money, No Limit, Ludacris--the latter’s tunes often get played right in mid-flow of a UK garage pirate set, despite the tempo difference) seems an especially strong influence. Pirate MCs have even repurposed the phrase “Dutty South” to refer to South London! Along with gabba’s distorted kickdrums and heavy claps, there’s also often an electro feel to the nu-garage beats–-dry and dead-sounding, all coldness and rigour--that seems to simultaneously refer sideways across space to bounce and booty and ghettotech, and backwards across time to the UK’s own electro track-lines (Northern bleep’n’bass in the early Nineties, the Street Sounds electro compilations). Hyperdub coined its own term to capture this Eighties retro-vibe flavor in gabba-garage, “electrobashment”. Cute, but if they’d compressed it further they’d have got something even neater and more apt: “electrobash”. The real Eighties reference point I sense behind it all, though, is the Original Gangsta himself, Schooly D: those skullcrusher beats in “P.S.K.,” that cold cold worldview.

In the new Gabba-Garage, the MC-ing is as sick as the twisted Mentazm-noize: a relentless battery of boasts and threats that weave together to create a vision of life that is absolutely bleak in its war-of-all-against-all Social Darwinism and war-of-the-sexes lovelessness. It’s horrible, it’s compelling, it's impossible to either fully affirm or totally reject.

Basically, what I’d like to believe is happening is the arrival, finally, of the Rave-Punk I’ve been banging on about for ages. More on this later this week…

Tuesday, November 12, 2002

Voice versus Vice. The missus gives them Vice boys the critical beatdown they so richly deserve. Having said that, and offered up a hearty “hear hear!” to each and every point she makes, I must however ‘fess up to enjoying the magazine, or parts of it. Vice is my little vice.

Like a lot of folks it was the fashion Do’s and Don’ts that first hooked me. The early Do’s especially were almost poetic in their compression, in 80 words or so imagining scenarios or even a whole life embodied in someone’s look. The Don’ts were just brutal. (Although in a weird way I see the Don’t’s victims as the true heroes—unwitting renegades against style culture and the branding consciousness of today’s youth. You know the way you’ll see someone on the street and their look is just so wrong – really thin and really tall Emo Philips type guy with three-sizes too small tracksuit bottom that ends four inches above the ankle and clings unappetisingly snug around the loins, psychedelic trance T-shirt, frizzed-out white-Afro/Nugent-circa-77 hair, a goddamn Stetson–and it’s not even that they don’t give a fuck, it’s that they’re not even aware there’s anything aberrant about the way they look. Or the middle-aged Jamaican gents who’ll wear, like a three-piece suit in a really vivid shade of mustard, and who really think they’re the shit?).

The trouble with hatin’ on Vice is that when all’s said and done, when every misdemeanour is tabulated, it can still be pretty darn funny, and some of is very well written (the Gavin McInnes bits mostly, unfortunately given that he’s the main offender). So it becomes a question of to what extent do you make allowances? It’s worth noting that a hefty proportion of humour—or rather, comedy (not quite the same time thing)--is rooted in the reactionary. Apart from stuff that is just surreal or silly (Monty Python-style absurdism), comedy is largely motored by loathing (of self or Other) or by mockery/deflation (of pretensions, affectations, fashions, trends, but also of all creeds based around the illusion of perfectibility, from Christianity to Communism to Californianism). The very quaintness of the namesake concept "Vice" is suggestive of this idea of cutting everyone down to size: man as essentially fallen, fallible, prone to ludicrous and lowly lusts. Give it up and give in to your basest, most shameful impulses seems to be the magazines’s “message”. Marvel at the daft things people do to get off.

More often than not, satire seems to come from a right-of-centre place. Especially in England: from Swift to Punch, from Waughs Evelyn and Auberon to those bilious Boulting Brothers comedies of the 1950s, right through to Private Eye and Mr. Agreeable, fogies and curmudgeons and cynics and out-right misanthropes seem to have an overwhelming advantage when it comes to mirth-generation. There’s a sort of cut-the-crap impulse towards cant and pious hokum that is a good weapon for fighting those who would boss our lives or "improve" us. At the same time satire’s tendency towards agnosticism and anti-idealism ultimately leads to
apolitical resignation, alcohol-soaked fatalism. “Humour” has also long been the great weapon of English anti-intellectual humanism , in the sense that the first accusation against fanatics and believers, from feminists to fascists, is that they haven’t got a sense of H. Amis pere et fils are obsessed with this idea of the humourless as someone not fully human. And one of the big motor-ideas of the whole “politically incorrect” backlash was reclaiming laughter-targets that had been placed out of bounds by the prigs and prudes: give us back our yuk-yuks you meanies.

It’s worth wondering just who are the great left-wing or progressive comedians. Possibly there is more of a tradition of this—radical or counterculture comedy—in America (Lenny Bruce, Firesign Theater, Devo, that fat chap whose name escapes me just this minute who did the film about Flint, Michigan and makes good fun of corporations on TV). But in Britain, it’s hard to think of any one who successfully puts the commie into comedy. Don’t say Alexei Sayle (he just shouts a lot) or Ben Elton (the Young Ones worked in part through the travesty of three of the great youth-cult idealisms of all time – hippie, punk, and --in Rik--post-punk/Rock Against Racism types–-the character always reminded me of the sanctimonious boy in my sixth form class who had TRB badges and ANL slogans written all over his notebooks). But maybe I’m missing some obvious exceptions here: disprove me please!

As for the question of good writing being enough of an excuse for noxious opinions… well, maybe it’s through being in the trade myself, but I can’t help responding to someone who is a natural, who has ‘it’, regardless of what the content is. I'd rather read a great stylist even if they’re saying something I disagree with or find objectionable, than a verve-less one saying something eminently sensible or worthwhile. You only have to think of Nietzche, the Futurist Manifestos, Celine, Wyndham Lewis, the early Julie Burchill even, and you can see how saying the unsayable and breaking with consensus can liberate enormous energy, a tremendous exuberance of language and style. Of course, sociopaths can be exuberant too, entertaining up to a certain point. There are bits of Vice that recall Answer Me!, a fanzine I queasily enjoyed up to a certain point (the line I wouldn’t cross was the Rape issue; for some reason the Murder and Suicide issues didn’t seem so offensive). Not so much Jim ‘Redneck Manifesto’ Goad as his then-wife Debbie, author of such staggering tirades as ‘I Hate Being A Jew’ and ‘You Turn Me Off’. The latter, an anti-sex rant, is especially powerful as sheer writing, throbbing with an aversion to the slimy colloidal facts of biological life that’s worthy of Celine: “rancid protein”, “scrotal imperatives”, “genetic sewage”, “musty trysts”. Again it shows how disgust is a powerful resource for humour.

Monday, November 11, 2002

Idyllictronica #2. Or is it proto-idyllictronica? I'm talking about Ultramarine’s beyond-classic Every Man and Woman Is A Star, which those lovely (and loveliness-loving) people at Darla have made available once more. Must have first heard and reviewed this album when it originally came out on Brainiak in late 1991, but for some reason, like “Papua New Guinea” it always makes me think of the following summer: the midsummer night season of Spiral Tribes raves. It was re-launched in ’92, if I remember correctly, on a different label (Rough Trade?), with a couple of extra tracks tacked on (taken from one of those limited edition 7 inch singles that Rough Trade was doing at the time). This expanded version is what Darla have reissued. One of those bonus tracks, “Saratoga”, is right up there with the best stuff Ultramarine ever did (sadly, almost all of it is on this album). The tune’s got the airy, breezy vibe of Freez’s 1981 jazz-funk hit “Southern Freez” (and wipe from your mind Freez’s later, perfectly horrible “I.O.U.”—electro at its most speech impediment aggravating—‘cos this Freez sounds almost like a totally different group). “Saratoga” doesn’t have “Southern Freez”’s bitter-sweet hint of sadness curled inside the insouciance; it’s purely care-free, sublimely buoyant. As is most of the rest of the record: it’s hard to think of an album that so successfully evokes happiness, contentment, spiritual satiety, without ever being soppy or smug, or hopelessly mellow and enervated. For some reason the music’s aura of sun-baked, tawny abundance always makes me think of Harvest Festivals, church altars strewn with ripened produce, rich autumnal hues. Or it makes me think of that dozy, dazy point in the summer when the blackberries are plump, the haystacks appear, and the heat makes you feel like you’re asleep even when you’re wide awake in the middle of the day. Of course there’s a tune here called “British Summertime”. The rustic beatitude comes across more subtly, though, on this album than on ‘93’s too overtly folk-referencing United Kingdoms. Every Man and Woman has samples of Robert Wyatt (and his former Soft Machine bandmate Kevin Ayers) while United Kingdoms actually features cameos from Wyatt singing some ancient English peasant protest ballads.

Every Man and Woman Is A Star was way ahead of the curve in terms of the recent renaissance of interest in all things Albion and folky (Julian Cope and his standing stones, Current 93/Coil, the apotheosis of Shirley Collins etc). (Indeed there was an Ultramarine album before Every Man and Woman called Folk, which I never heard, which would make them even more incredibly prescient). Every Man and Woman’s reference points, though, are less Fairport Convention, June Tabor, Incredible String Band, Roy Harper, and more country tinged soft-rock and the non-R&B influenced, pure-voiced end of English AOR. Case in point, album highlight “Honey,” with its samples from America and Judie Tzuke. Talking of which, I could swear on this reissue they’ve pulled the Tzuke vocals (did Judie get wise, get mad, say ‘no’?) and recruited some similarly fragrant and dulcet toned female vocalist to croon a very close facsimile. It might just be the remastering, which also threw me for a loop until I checked the press-release and saw it had been remastered: initially, the record sounded almost disconcertingly vivid. At any rate, Every Man and Woman Is A Star: a stone classic that now sounds even better than ever.
Idyllictronica #1. Apart from Geogaddi and the BoC reissues (Two-ism, and Hi-Scores), it’s been a thin year for idyllictronica. But courtesy of Carpark (New York’s ever dependable Home of Halcyon) here comes a late entry: Casino Versus Japan’s Whole Numbers Play the Basics, already shaping up as one of my ab fav’s for the Year 2002. Swimming with textures like rain-rivulets-down-a-windowpane or eyes-brimful-of-tears, tingling with dinky-yet-cosmic melodies (the Wurlitzer at the Pearly Gates), this album gets me flashing on Aphex Twin back when he still knew how to be “wet” . (His last half-decade’s output is dry and itchy and flaking, the sonic equivalent of dermatitis. Come to think of it, DSP sounds like an STD). Indeed something about Whole Numbers recalls that all-too-brief age d’or that was first-wave chill-out: as well as Selected Ambient Works 1985-92, think Global Communciations’s gorgeously dewy-eyed and poignant “Ob-Selon Minos”. Some Casino Versus Japan’s tunes even have a teeny hint of The Orb about them---that slowly gyrating space-station grace, that Zero-G-funk. Early ‘90s technostalgia already?! Then again, why not? One of the problems, or deficiencies, of electronic music in the last seven years or so is the phobia or hang-up it has developed about making music that is purely lovely.

Friday, November 08, 2002

Schadenfreude time. Hip hip hooray! Following close on recent news about Cream being forced to go monthly 'cos of dwindling attendance and Ministry of Sound’s South London club being in similar trouble and possibly having to be sold off, the announcement that MoS’s abysmal superclub glossy Ministry is closing owing to plummeting circulation should have all true believers jumping for joy. And apparently Mixmag overstated (owing to “procedural error”--yeah, right!) its circulation for the last half-year audit period (claiming 100 thousand, whereas the truth is 75 thousand). It’s over!. At last, the massive is voluntarily switching off the life-support system that has sustained post-rave dance culture in its dismal stasis quo of living death these past six-seven years, and is turning away in droves to... other stuff, I guess. Another indication is the precipitious deterioration of Ecstasy’s status as magic pill: it would seem its (sub)cultural life in the UK is finished, signaled by the fact that in some parts of the country the dealer-to-punter unit price has dropped to as low as one pound. This means that it is now even more lowly and commonplace than a pint of lager, and perhaps only slightly more elevated than sniffing glue, inhaling lighter-fluid or stealing your Gran's medication (ie. not subcultural but pre-cultural or anti-cultural buzzes).

Meanwhile, the rat swarm of vibe-killin' exploiters and opportunists are hastening to leave the ship they sank: Ministry will apparently be shortly relaunching as a magazine “about global youth culture as opposed to taking pills in a nightclub in the north of England.” Maybe Ibiza will be, like, supernaturally deserted next summer! Maybe Digweed really will have to go work in a bank! Maybe, just maybe, this is rave’s 1975, with some kind of unimaginable-'til-we-actually-get-it regeneration/mutation in the offing (something has to take up the slack, sociocultural energy-wise). Maybe “rave-punk” has already started (got some ideas on this, actually---watch this space). (If the rumors about the UK sales performance of Fischerspooner---Ministry of Sound’s big signing/gamble/clutching-at-straws-for-the-Next-Big-Money-Spinning-Zeitgeist-Definer---are true, though, it sure as hell won’t be electroclash). Maybe nothing will happen at all. But for now we can all rejoice in the fact that hard times could not have hit a more deserving bunch of people.

Friday, November 01, 2002

Final thoughts re SR vs KD. Got a rather testy missive from the man, refrained from making a doily out of it, 'cos
I wanna take this back to a Higher Plane. See, it’s not about his music: I’ve heard bits 'n' bobs-- not my bag, really, it may well have merit. (The wannabe/purist approach doesn’t infallibly lead to crap---Georgie Fame was ace! AWB’s “Pick Up the Pieces”… er… --- although by definition it never leads to groundbreaking music, as its motor-idea is that black people have broken all the ground already and white folks can only humbly follow the trails they’ve blazed). Nor is it about him as a person (might have a heart of gold for all I know, be best friends with David Gedge and Laibach). Even the soulboy thing is a red herring (as I wrote in the original rant, he’s closer to a jazz curator or Steve Barrow-style dub archivist) but hey, we all have our self-protective stereotypes (c.f. Kirk’s ravers and dance journos who only listened to The Cure until they did their first E). Nope, it’s all about the ideas. Ideas he consistently voices in public
(eloquently and forcefully, I might add), ideas I find both historically suspect and, above all else, tending to deplete the world of excitement.

The attitude is best encapsulated in this remark quoted in Muzik from 1997: “I never saw techno as anything else but a continuation of black music. I didn’t think of it as any new kind of music.” What’s wrong with this statement, apart from its historical innacuracy (where’s Moroder, Kraftwerk, Telex, etc in this picture)? First, I simply can’t understand the impulse to over-emphasise continuity and downplay breaks. It’s such a dreary, dulling way of looking at music history: no revolutions, no fissures, no swerves. Second, it’s anti-hybridity: the implication is that black music is so self-sufficient that it couldn’t possibly get anything invigorating from outside itself. Third, it’s self-effacing, implying that white musicians can only contribute via the sincerest form of flattery. And fourth, it’s inadequate epistemologically (if that’s the right word). The gap in Degiorgio’s theory of how music works is that there’s no way of accounting for change. Everybody knows house comes from disco, but why did the music stop sounding exactly like disco at a certain point? Everybody knows Detroit Techno owes a lot to Parliament-Funkadelic, but what is the X-Factor that made it cease to sound exactly like P-Funk after a while? The answer in both cases is varying mixtures of technology, drugs, and influences from Europe. In Chicago, less European influences, but more drugs; in Detroit, hardly any drugs, but a lot more in the way of European influences.

As anybody reading this will surely know, I’m firmly in the camp that prefers to amplify the sense of upheaval and schism, indeed I regard this almost as an ethical imperative. Maybe “the truth” lies somewhere in between. But what does “truth” have to do with culture anyway? Nobody is practicing a form of science here; it’s all about different myths in competition. As Degiorgio with his MA in Medieval History should know, it’s all about the stories we tell ourselves, all self-serving to varying degrees. Ultimately my contention is that the particular mythic narrative to which I subscribe is above all else effective: it consistently stimulates more innovation (if you believe mutation and revolution are possible, you at least have the possibility of achieving that) and it creates a more volatile music culture. What would you rather be – prone to over-excitement, or permanently unsurprised? In this respect, I think finally of Kirk’s comment on E culture, how it was no great shock to him ‘cos he’d seen geezers hugging on dancefloors at soul’n’jazzfunk events in the mid-Eighties. Maze fans giving their burly buddies a hug-and-a-pound really isn’t equivalent to the neuro-cultural forcefield of electric energy that occurred when rooms full of total strangers all got synched up on the same MDMA-meets-music buzz. If you don’t think Ecstasy culture wrought a major transformation in "Britishness" (and mutated music in incredibly exciting ways) then I would venture you’ve had your head stuck in the sand ---or between a stack of Cymande and Norman Connors albums---for the last 15 years.

I rest my case. It’s been fun, food for thought, but as me old mum always says, enough is as good as a feast.