Sunday, December 29, 2019

"the stained glass maker for the Cathedral of Sound"

RIP Vaughan Oliver, creator of exquisite and exquisitely apt artwork for recording artists, some on the 4AD label and others not.

I was delighted when he agreed to do the cover for my first book Blissed Out: The Raptures of Rock, which does actually have the lambent look of stained glass.

Like Peter Saville with Joy Division, for most of us, Oliver will always be paired with the original Cathedral of Sound crew.

"Spangle Maker" could be a job description for Oliver.

"The blurred cover image, by turn-of-the-20th-Century American photographer Gertrude Käsebier, shows a woman peering into a cloudy glass orb. The sphere resembles a fortune teller’s crystal ball, in which we might glimpse some inaccessible part of ourselves. The woman on the record’s cover seems to symbolize its listener. Her pose toward the murky globe is like ours toward the Cocteaus’ atmospheric music. She regards an object whose ambiguity makes it rife with potential. Just as the crystal ball yields different visions to each viewer, each listener distinguishes her own message in the sonic mist" - Elizabeth Lindau on The Spangle Maker EP.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Xmas Books Bonanza #2 The Song of the Machine, Agnès Gayraud's The Dialectic of Pop, Nate Sloan & Charlie Harding's Switched On Pop, Kevin Ayers lyrics miscellany, Mark Leckey

Another batch of last-minute stocking-stuffing candidates - or, more realistically, "what to spend your book tokens on"

Originally published in 2000 in France, now updated for the first English edition on Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, The Song of the Machine is a graphic novel that tells the story of electronic music and DJ culture from disco to techno.  It's by David Blot & Mathias Cousin - the former is a radio host at Paris's Radio Nova and co-founder of the Nineties house party Respect, the latter sadly no longer with us. It's a great read - and a great look.


Keeping it French, here's a very interesting book  -  Dialectic of Pop, by Agnès Gayraud, on Urbanomic Press.

Gayraud is a scholar and admirer of Adorno, infamous anti-pop grump and scourge of the "distraction factory."  An unusual place to embark upon "the first major philosophical treatise" about pop as a "constitutively impure form," you might think and you'd be right. (I feel there might be a few other contenders for that first-treatise title though, including the "constitutively impure" bit. That sounds close to the angle of one of the earliest candidates: Richard Meltzer's The Aesthetics of Rock, published 1970, written a few years earlier while its author was in postgraduate academia studying philosophy, if I recall right. But then again, I've never managed to get very deep into its thickets of turgiosity, which had some readers at the time taking it as a parody of academia). Gayraud is also a pop singer - somewhat paralleling Adorno, himself a practitioner as well as theorist, composing works in the severe serialist mode. The approach in Dialectic of Pop is a bit like Adorno reborno for the era of  Daft Punk and Drake: the outlook pop-positive from the outset, the analysis penetrating, rigorous, elegant. Gayraud asks lot of interesting and pertinent questions - and answers them!

An in-depth Quietus interview with the author.

Another academic-ish book with "Pop" in the title - 

Published by Oxford University Press, Switched On Pop: How Popular Music Works, and Why It Matters is a development out of musicologist Nate Sloan and musician / songsmith Charlie Harding's excellent podcast  of the same name (I guested for the Auto-Tune episode). But where Gayraud's book approaches the aesthetics of pop from a philosophical angle, Switched On Pop is more about the nuts and bolts of pop as music, the mechanics of song-construction and record-making:  "how popular music works" as the first part of the subtitle has it.  Illustrations and diagrams by Iris Gottlieb help the reader grasp the technical stuff - and add a really fun and attractive element to the text.


He had the looks, he had the tunes, he had the wit, but he never had the hits - Kevin Ayers, almost a pop star. 

Lovingly assembled by daughter Galen Ayers, Shooting At the Moon: The Collected Lyrics of Kevin Ayers is a sweet medley of handwritten lyrics (including early drafts), fish recipes, intimate photos...

The wonderfully named Mitch Speed has written a whole book about Mark Leckey's Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, part of Afterall Books / One Work series of works about, well, a single work of art.  Which in this case may well be my favorite work of art of the last twenty years. Hits me where I live, obviously.

It looks like an interesting series - I spy a tome by book-making mate Kodwo Eshun in there, on Dan Graham.

(Which reminds me - whatever happened to the Verso reissue of More Brilliant Than the Sun, which I have announced twice before in the When Mates Make Books series).

Incidentally, my own brief paean to Fiorucci reappears in Tate Publishing's O' Magic Power of Bleakness book for the recent Leckey exhibition.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Hauntology Parish Newsletter - Christmas Bumper Issue

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!

Moon Wiring Club cometh with his customary seasonal offering: Cavity Slabs. Like the atypical summertime long-player Ghastly Garden Centres of earlier this year, Slabs is a brisk and beat-driven effort, veering away from the boggy hinterland of ambience and vocal gloop into which much of Ian Hodgson's output this past decade has sunk so deliriously. Focused and concise, the new record  boasts just eight tuff tunes. The reference point this time around is breakbeat hardcore - in moments, I'm reminded of the phat-but-spooky sound of Eon, although Ian says the launchpad for the new direction was actually this obscure tune:

This very very early Moving Shadow track (by a group later and slightly better known for their Rising High releases) first reached Ian's eardrums via an Autechre radio show from many years ago. "It always stuck with me. It’s that mix of beats with ‘anything goes’ sampling and environmental sounds ~ it always makes me think of coastlines... and a sort of grey mistiness."


The aim with Cavity Slabs was to take a detour round the ongoing overload of rave-replicas, with their neurotic attention to period detail and naked nostalgia, and instead reactivate the bygone playfulness and incongruous-samples-clumsily-collaged approach of the early Nineties, which threw up so many genre-of-one anomalies and half-realised oddments alongside the classic bangers and slammers.

^^^a megamix of three tunes from the album^^^

"I wanted to compose something that reflected the dankness / mystery of fog without it being an ambient drone affair," adds Ian. The name Cavity Slabs comes from a pile of building materials Ian passed on a rainy-day stroll, which conjured associations both of vinyl platters and "limestone moorside and burial chambers". The overall atmosphere and thematic is caught in the slogan "COAX ANCIENT VOICES FROM THE LANDSCAPE" and track titles like "Cromlech Technology" - cromlech being a megalithic altar-tomb or circle of standing stones around a burial mound.

Cavity Slabs is available for purchase here .

But wait... there's more... adding to the Xmas feast, there's a new, radically different version of an old MWC fave: a DL-only VULPINE REDUX edition of Somewhere A Fox Is Getting Married.  "The original album plus 47 minutes of 12 bonus track alternate takes / extended versions / tangentially related nonsense from the vaults circa 2006-2011" including unreleased experiments like "35 Year Sit Down" and the lost "Schlagerdelia" classic "Mountain Men".


Talking of "grey mistiness" -  remiss have I been in not alerting parishioners to this new release by  Lo Five - Wirral-based electronician Neil Grant.

There's a really nice "mundane mystical" atmosphere to the sound Neil's worked up on Geography of the Abyss - muzzy textures like looking out through a coach window that's streaked with rippling rivulets of heavy rain, or trying to peer through the frosted-glass window of your front door to see who's coming up the path. The vibe of the album reminds me of the sort of trance you can fall into while travelling on a train or a bus, that feeling of slipping outside the moorings of time.


A record that not only remissly passed without comment from me, but that I missed completely when it originally came out in June - Vanishing Twin's The Age of Immunology.

Triffic stuff -  at times like The Focus Group if based around "proper" musicianship rather than sampladelia. As with their previous album Choose Your Own Adventure, the starting points of Broadcast, Stereolab, White Noise, library music, etc, are still discernible, but now they are definitively on a journey of their own.

‘You Are Not an Island’, ‘Invisible World’ and ‘Planete Sauvage’ were apparently "recorded in nighttime sessions in an abandoned mill in Sudbury"!


More remissness - alert overdue for the release of the audio element of Andrew Pekler's wonderful Phantom Islands - A Sonic Atlas  project of last year.


A recommendation from parish elder Bruce Levenstein

Release rationale:

Mount Maxwell continues his run of 1970s themed releases with a full length meditation on the perceptual experiences of children born in the wake of the 1960's cultural revolution. Highly ambivalent in tone, Only Children marks a departure from earlier MM releases both in its use of acoustic instruments and in a newfound sense of criticality towards its subject matter; the back-to-the-land optimism of tracks like 'Nature ID' in uneasy proximity to the skeptical disquiet of 'Weird Places' and 'Nomad'. 


Bruce also brings to my attention this effort

Release rationale:

There was a certain something about watching television in the 70s and 80s. The static crackle when you switched on your set. The faint smell of ozone as it slowly warmed up. The chunky buttons (including such flights of fancy as 'BBC3' and 'ITV2"). And, of course, the programmes themselves.

Whether it was HTV's seminal Folk Horror tinged children's classics 'Sky' or Children of the Stones, BBC1's fiercely intelligent 'adult-show-for-kids' 'The Changes' or ITV's everyday tale of alien possession, 'Chocky', the era was bursting with inventive, unforgettable and yes, terrifying shows.

The only thing more memorable than the actual programmes were their theme tunes. The unique talents of Paddy Kingsland, Sidney Saget, Eric Wetherell, John Hyde and many more were responsible for the atmospheric, eerie soundscapes which formed the aural backdrop to our favourite shows. Which is where Kev Oyston (The Soulless Party) and Colin Morrison (Castles in Space) come in. They've corralled the best of today's innovative electronic musicians, and together they've created 'Scarred For Life: The Album', a collection of new music inspired by the terrifying televisual sounds of our childhoods.

All proceeds for this album will go to aid Cancer Research UK, a charity which is close to the hearts of some of our artists, one of whom is currently undergoing treatment for cancer.

Enjoy. And remember: DO have nightmares. They're good for you.

-Stephen Brotherstone & Dave Laurence, co-authors 'Scarred For Life Volume One: the 1970's'. .


The incredibly prolific and thorough Stephen Prince of A Year in the Country - independent scholar of the rustic eerie and convenor of reliably interesting compilations - has just published a second book.

Straying From the Pathways: Hidden Histories, Echoes of the Future's Past and the Unsettled Landscape is the companion volume to last year's Wandering Through Spectral Fields: Journeys in Otherly Pastoralism, the Further Reaches of Folk and the Parallel Worlds of Hauntology. 

How does Stephen do it?!?

More information about Straying From the Pathways here.

Hark at this here Table of Contents!

1. Explorations of an Eerie Landscape: Texte und Töne – The Disruption, The Changes, The Edge is Where the Centre is: David Rudkin and Penda’s Fen: An Archaeology, The Twilight Language of Nigel Kneale, The Stink Still Here – the miners’ strike 1984-85 – Robert Macfarlane – Benjamin Myers’ Under the Rock: The Poetry of a Place

2. Fractured Dream Transmissions and a Collapsing into Ghosts: John Carpenter – Prince of Darkness, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, Village of the Damned, Christine – Nigel Kneale – Martin Quatermass – John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos

3. Hinterland Tales of Hidden Histories and Unobserved Edgeland Transgressions: Adrian McKinty’s In the Morning I’ll Be Gone – Clare Carson’s Orkney Twilight – David Peace’s GB84 – Tony White’s The Fountain in the Forest

4. Countercultural Archives and Experiments in Temporary Autonomous Zones: Jeremy Sandford and Ron Reid’s Tomorrow’s People – Richard Barnes’ The Sun in the East: Norfolk & Suffolk Fairs – Sam Knee’s Memory of a Free Festival: The Golden Era of the British Underground Festival Scene – Gavin Watson’s Raving ’89 – Molly Macindoe’s Out of Order: The Underground Rave Scene 1997-2006

5. The Village and Seaside Idyll Gone Rogue: Hot Fuzz – The Avengers’ “Murdersville” – The Prisoner – In My Mind – Malcolm Pryce’s Aberystwyth Mon Amour

6. Albion in the Overgrowth and Timeslip Echoes: Requiem – The Living and the Dead – Britannia – Detectorists

7. In Cars – Building a Better Future, Peculiarly Subversive Enchantments and Faded Futuristic Glamour: In the Company of Ghosts: The Poetics of the Motorway – Joe
 Moran’s On Roads: A Hidden History – Chris Petit’s Radio On – Autophoto – Martin Parr’s Abandoned Morris Minors of the West of Ireland – The Friends of Eddie Coyle – Killing Them Softly – Langdon Clay’s Cars: New York City 1974-76

8. Brutalism, Reaching for the Sky and Bugs in Utopia: Peter Chadwick’s This Brutal World – Bladerunner – J.G.Ballard – Ben Wheatley – High-Rise – Peter Mitchell’s Memento Mori – Brick High-Rise

9. Battles with the Old Guard and the Continuing sparking of Vivid Undercurrents: A Very Peculiar Practice – Edge of Darkness

10. Lycanthropes, Dark Fairy Tales and the Dangers of Wandering off the Path: The Company of Wolves – Danielle Dax – Red Riding Hood – Wolfen – Hansel & Gretel: Witchhunters – The Keep

11. The Empty City Film and Other Visions of the End of Days – Survival and Shopping in the Post-Apocalypse: Day of the Triffids – Into the Forest – Night of the Comet –The Quiet Earth

12. Universe Creation, Spectral Lines in the Cultural Landscape and Reimagined Echoes from the Past: Hauntology – Hypnagogic Pop – Synthwave – D.A.L.I.’s When Haro Met Sally – Nocturne’s Dark Seed – Beyond the Black Rainbow – Mo’ Wax, UNKLE, Tricky, Massive Attack, Portishead, DJ Shadow, Andrea Parker – Ghost Box Records,  The Focus Group, Belbury Poly – The Memory Band – The Delaware Road – Rowan : Morrison – Howlround – Mark Fisher – the BBC Radiophonic Workshop – Adrian Younge’s Electronique Void – DJ Food – Grey Frequency – Keith Seatman – Douglas Powell – Akiha Den Den – The Ghost in the MP3 – Black Channels – The Quietened Village – The Corn Mother


Now this is a little odd - not only is this here chap trespassing on Hatherley's terrain, he's borrowed his first name too! 


Finally -  and no doubt this morsel of news has already reached your flabbergasted ears  -  but cor blimey guvnor,  Paul Weller's only going to release a record on Ghost Box! The In Another Room EP is out early next year. And it's actually rather good.

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Books Bonanza part 1 - Woebot, Fred Vermorel's Dead Fashion Girl, The Country of Larks: A Chiltern Journey

A bonzana of stocking-filler books out this season. (So many that I'll have to do this in installments).

Let's start with this -

The sequel to The Big Book of Woe, here's another hefty slab (albeit virtual slab, since it's a Kindle) of Matthew Ingram's bloggeration: The Bumper Book of Woe: More Collected Writing on Music. - for the bargain price of 2.99 (that's in pounds and dollars) More information and how to get virtual-hold of it, here. I can't comment on the contents as yet because when I bought one it never actually downloaded into my Kindle (probably owing to the ancientness of the iPad). But it's Woebot so you know it'll be good.

Consider it an amuse-bouche, if a copious one - nearly 80 thousand words! - for Matt's debut book proper:  Retreat: How The Counterculture Invented Wellness. Out on Repeater next year.

As pop culture thinkers go, Fred Vermorel is right up there, among a very select company of the greats.  I own almost all his books (haven't chased down that slender Adam Ant biog, and only just noticed he did a similar quickie on Gary Numan; I draw a line at Kate Moss). Even more of a testament, I've actually read nearly all of the ones in my possession, which is unusual for me - my rate of buying and acquiring far exceeds my rate of reading.

The towering achievements are those most unorthodox biographies The Secret Life of Kate Bush (and the Strange Art of Pop) - which contains a theory of pop and meditations on suburbia alongside Kate-analysis and Bush-clan archaeology - and Vivienne Westwood: Fashion, Perversity, and the Sixties Laid Bare. But Starlust, the book Vermorel assembled with his former wife Judy out of the raw written and spoken materials of fan desire and delusion, was a revelatory intervention when it dropped in the mid-Eighties (and Fandemonium, the sequel, was a nice bonus wedge of 20th Century delirium).

You couldn't call Fred a music critic, really, or even a music historian: he's not got much to say about sound as such. But when it comes to pop as myth, pop as an image-industry, a machine for personality-production and the mobilization of mass desire, and how that functions and the purposes it serves in late capitalist blah blah blah... well, he's got very few rivals indeed.

So a new book by Fred Vermorel is an event, and Dead Fashion Girl: A Situationist Detective Story (Strange Attractor Press) does not disappoint.The subject is the unsolved murder of a young woman, Jean Townsend, who commuted from her hometown Ruislip to move within the fashion and nightlife worlds of 1950s London. This true-crime investigation seems to involve a return to the primal scene of Fred-as-writer: a moment that sparked his particular sleuthing approach to research and narrative (not an uncommon move for writers as they reach a certain age - a return to the source of why you do and how you do what you do). On the first and second page of the book, Fred recalls his 8-year old's fascination for the story. His dad comes home from work carrying his usual Evening Standard: "After dinner I spread the paper over the kitchen table looking for clues that might have eluded the police. More than half a century later I'm still looking".


The quest plunges Vermorel and his readers into a glamorously seedy post-WW2 London where clubland and gangland intersect. It's a world already half-familiar from the TV series The Hour and the Princess Margaret / Antony Armstrong-Jones bits of The Crown,  from films like Peeping Tom, Let Him Have It and that one about Ruth Ellis, and from The Phantom Thread. The damage of the war still visible in uncleared bombsites (there's a horrible story of a boy getting trapped in a pocket at the base of a Lido pool, caused by a bombing raid, and drowning). Rationing continuing deep into the Fifties, along with the black market and the spivs. Mayfair and Soho clubs where  aristos and gangsters rubbed shoulders (and sometimes other body parts). The London of Polari and private-member "theatre clubs" that were actually gay clubs. Of strip joints and narrow alleys in the West End with notorious public lavatories. A demimonde in which the pre-Profumo Stephen Ward moved. The story with its scabrous anecdotes (orgies! slashings!) and gossip, drawn equally from archival materials and numerous interviews with contemporaries of poor Jean Towsend, shows that Larkin's semi-serious line about sexual intercourse being invented in 1963 was always a load of cobblers. The difference between Fifties and Sixties is really the level of secrecy involved. Every kind of pleasure and vice and kink could be catered for, if you knew where to go. London was rampant, well before it started to "swing" publicly and openly.

Dead Fashion Girl digs through the crust of cliche with an astonishing depth of archival research that cakes the pages with news clippings, magazine photo spreads, advertisements, official records, theatre programmes, and photographer's contact sheets. The texture of the era is vividly evoked. I'm only about a third into the book so I'm a ways off the "whodunnit" bit, the big reveal, where Vermorel outlines a promised "compelling solution" to the murder that also explains the puzzling and perturbing shroud of official secrecy that has placed many records and documents out of access to the public for years to come. But I'm racing towards it.


More info here. Order it here. Read a short extract from Dead Fashion Girl here.

Dead Fashion Girl is a bulky book that would distend a Christmas stocking alarmingly. But Gail Simmons's The Country of Larks: A Chiltern Journey ((Bradt) would actually fit into a stocking snugly. It's a pocket-size delight with a pleasing jacket-less hardback design printed directly onto Wibalin (apparently what hardbacks are made of these days) and whose surface has a faintly embossed feel to the touch.  You can get a slight sense of that from the scan I did below. 


In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that I know the author , although only slightly  - Gail is the sister of my boyhood friend Mark, a  figure in the background as the two of us listened to The Stranglers and The Doors. Gail grew up to be a travel writer. Like many of us raised amid the hilly landscape of West Hertfordshire, she has been indelibly marked by the countryside. Our appreciation for it has taken a keen  bittersweet edge as the years pass, with more and more of it getting nibbled away by development and environmental attrition. The title of the book is a reference to the virtual disappearance of the skylark and its song, although  - as if in compensation - the reintroduced kite has flourished and is omnipresent in the region now. It's also a reference to Robert Louis Stevenson and a journey made by the sickly author in the autumn of 1874, as recounted in his "In the Beechwoods": during the course of his three-day hike, he heard endless larksong.  As the sub-subtitle, "In the Footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson and the Footprint of HS2", indicates, Gail painstakingly reenacts Stevenson's journey, painfully aware of the  damage about to be inflicted upon this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty: the construction of the high-speed railway  HS2, which will plunge right through some of the prettiest bits of the Chilterns - lanes and meadows and copses that have remained unchanged in centuries.


The book is a joy to read, attentive to tiny details of the landscape, and crammed with historical morsels and etymological delights to do with the names of places, rural practices, and features of the landscape - nearly all unfamiliar to me despite having grown up there. But I think even if you don't hail from that area, anyone who loves the landscapes of the  British Isles would get something from reading The Country of Larks.

But it's an elegiac read too, the shadow of the pointless high-speed train looming over every page.  I say, "pointless" - although HS2 will only shorten the journey time from London to central Birmingham marginally, because the train stops outside the city, and is seemingly of absolutely no use to the local residents in the areas it passes through without ever stopping, it does have some knock-on benefits for Chilterns residents. Simmons conscientiously and fairmindedly includes a pro-HS2 argument from a commuters-rights activist, who says that it will relieve some of the passenger pressure on the severely overtaxed normal-speed, frequent-stop trains on the existing rail system. But is that really worth the ugliness of the eye-sore imposed on the landscape, the  disruption caused by the building work (including the dumping of huge volumes of displaced soil in farmland acquired through compulsory purchase, the new roads for heavy vehicle access that have obliterated ancient lanes, etc), or the ongoing noise pollution of high-speed trains rattling past every nine minutes once the monstrosity is completed? Then there are the environmental costs: high-speed trains hurtling along the elevated railway are a death trap for barn owls and bats, and the construction creates a barrier for the free movement of wildlife and plants across the terrain.

Stop press: The Country of Larks has been shortlisted for Debut Travel Writer of the Year in this year's Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards.

More information about The Country of Larks here.  Short extracts from the book here and here and here.

River Misbourne Chilterns by Timo Newton-Syms Wikimedia Commons

The River Misbourne. Pic by Timo Newton-Syms