Thursday, October 21, 2021

Tape Leaders Rewind!

Velocity Press have just issued an expanded and amended version of Ian Helliwell's Tape Leaders: A Compendium of Early British Electronic Composers! Prompting me to wheel and come again with my own review from several years ago (see below). It's even more of a lavishly illustrated fetish object than before. You can buy the new edition of Tape Leaders here

(While we're on this subject, a huge cache of pieces - by one of the figures in Helliwell's Encyclopedia Anglotronica, the avant-choreographer Ernest Berk - has found its way onto YouTube. Thirteen pieces in all, some of them lengthy, and all accompanied by stills of his ballet ensemble performing, sometimes starkers - Berk was a fervent naturist - and daubed in psychedelic body-paint)  

Ian Helliwell also has a retrospective of his experimental filmwork showing at The Cube in Bristol this Sunday 24th October. 


For years now independent researcher Ian Helliwell has been excavating the early decades of electronic and tape-based experimental music, with a particular focus on the British story. He's displayed his discoveries via a radio series, The Tone Generation,  the  F.C. Judd documentary Practical Electronica, and most recently through an irregular series of in-depth features in The Wire.  Now he's written a book, Tape Leaders: A Compendium Of Early British Electronic Music Composers.

As seen with his Wire article on Practical Electronics magazine as a hub for DIY synth operators, Helliwell's special fascination is for a breed of British amateurs who doggedly pursued their eccentric interests. Unlike Europe, where composers generally came out of the academy or were attached  to the experimental units of national radio stations, or America, where they might also be supported by corporations like Bell, the U.K. was a particularly fertile ground for hobbyists - boffins like Peter Keen and Brian Whibley who cobbled together contraptions in shed or garage workshops.

 Other archetypes discernible in the pages of Tape Leaders are the formally trained composer who  - in the absence of institutional encouragement or funding  - is forced to go it alone (Janet Beat, Cyril Clouts) and the artistic polymath drawn to electronics as an accompaniment to their visual or performance work (Ken Gray, who prefers to think of himself as a "communications engineer", or the choreographer and dancer  Ernest Berk,  who was also a naturist and all-round free living and free thinking chap).

Styled as an encyclopedia, Tape Leaders doesn't go in much for evocation of sonix, but the book bulges with fascinating details and the illustrative material is fabulous: groovy looking flyers and posters for electronic music events and multi-media arts festivals, diagrams of equipment set-ups, adverts for brands of tape, and as you might expect lots of black-and-white photos of  middle-aged experimenters with well-combed hair, ties and button shirts with the sleeves rolled up posed next to banks of wires, dials, and reel-to-reels.  Helliwell has fun with the guidebook format: a rating system evaluates each composer in terms of Commitment Factor, Obscurity Quotient, and Recording Availability. The latter is rather often "Poor".  That tantalising effect is one of the only downsides with this delightful book. So often the reader's desire is piqued hopelessly by the knowledge that these works - many written for arty film shorts, theatrical plays or avant-garde ballets - exist in the world but that it's pretty unlikely you'll ever get to hear them. Those pangs are mitigated slightly by the 15-track CD that accompanies Tape Leaders which includes impossibly obscure work by the likes of Peter Grogono,  Donald Henshilwood, David Piper, and the aforementioned Berk.


Wednesday, September 22, 2021


Truly saddened to learn of the death of Richard H. Kirk, all-round sonic visionary and - it's not remarked upon often enough - one of the great postpunk guitarists. 

He is most renowned as a founding member - and the longest lasting member - of Cabaret Voltaire. But along with the Cabs's astonishingly productive peak-era run of sustained innovation and strangeness - one of the truly original, unlike-anything-else sounds of that time - Kirk enjoyed a second golden moment  in the early 1990s with his collaborative techno projects Sweet Exorcist and Xon, through which came some of the greatest Yorkshire bleep tracks. Tenacious bugger that he was, Kirk carried on making interesting records in great number under a profusion of aliases (including a stream of  "machine soul" / electronic-listening-music EPs and LPs as Sandoz) right up to last year's Shadow of Fear, a fine restatement of the classic Cabs sound.  

I didn't know Richard well, but do have fond memories of him generously giving me a guided tour of Sheffield postpunk landmarks on a grey, intermittently rainy day during the summer of 2002, when I was back in the UK to research Rip It Up and making similar expeditions to Manchester and Bristol hoping to detect any lingering aura-of-era that might still cling to particular buildings and streets. In Sheffield, many of the sites of historical interest to the postpunk scholar had been effaced by the passage of time. But Richard showed me the building where Western Works had been located, the road where Adi Newton lived in a fetid den of artistic and lifestyle experimentation, the record and book shop Rare and Racy (a longstanding hub for the city's left-field listeners, still in vibrant fettle in 2002) and various other nodes of oppositional culture. Then we went for a curry before I headed back to London on the train. 

I first met Richard many years before, early in my time at Melody Maker, when I went up to Sheffield for the first time, to do a cover story on Chakk, one of the better second-wave avant-funk outfits who came in the wake of Cabaret Voltaire and 23 Skidoo.  Chakk manager Amrik Rai took me round the Cabs's gaff, where I was surprised to observe that they enjoyed a puff (somehow it didn't seem to fit their stern, no-hippie-shit image). Later in 1986, I interviewed Kirk & Mallinder - if memory serves in London, at the ICA bar. They seemed at a bit of a cross-roads - if not as disconsolately rudderless as Sheffield peers Heaven 17, who I also interviewed around that time -  then not knowing quite where to go next. They'd done a series of cool records through the Some Bizarre / Virgin arrangement, culminating in The Covenant, The Sword and The Arm of Lord, which I'd liked a lot, but they hadn't broken through as hoped. Soon they were to make a bid to go even nearer the mainstream, signing to EMI and taking on a glossier club-targeted sound.  Cabs fiends disagree about that phase. Kirk would have more success  penetrating the house scene - and sounded more convincing and compelling - when he partnered with DJ Parrot as Sweet Exorcist, releasing the early Warp classic "Testone".  A pioneer of industrial dance was reborn as a hardcore rave forefather. 

(Read this interview with DJ Parrot aka Richard Barratt, which has stuff on the primitive set-up they struggled with to make "Testone")

video directed by Jarvis Cocker apparently!

After that milestone of emaciated minimalism, Sweet Exorcist released a mini-LP of maximalist bleep titled C.C.C.D., whose title track "Clonk's Coming" is an under-appreciated wonder. 

Then there was Kirk's collaboration with bleep pioneer Robert Gordon as Xon, resulting in gems like "Dissonance" off the 1991 EP The Mood Set.

Here is a stash of writings by me on Cabaret Voltaire and Kirk's bleep + bass works. And below just a handful of top tunes. 

And here is a Tribune tribute to Richard H. Kirk by Owen Hatherley, situating Cabaret Voltaire and Sweet Exorcist in the political and socioeconomic landscape of the post-industrial North. 

If  - and this seems unlikely, knowing the readership - you happen to have never heard any Cabs music, may I recommend checking out Eight Crepuscule Tracks? It's the perfect distillation of peak-era Cab creativity - their equivalent to The Fall's Slates 10-inch maxi-EP.  (And yet not quite equivalent - Eight is a 1987 expansion of the Three Crepuscule Tracks EP, originally released in 1981 - the same year as Slates)

was so pleased to have this this on the Rip It Up compilation CD


"Black Mask" was the first Cabs tune to blow me away - still one of my ab faves out of their uuuurrrv

For some of Kirk's more obscure techno/bleep era excursions and aliases, check out this tribute thread at Dissensus. 

For a cultural and material topography of postpunk Sheffield, check out this interview I did with the late Andy Gill, the NME's Sheffield correspondent during this legendary time and friends with the Cabs and most of the other significant musicians in the town. 

Here's what Andy had to say about the Cabs and RHK:

“... Before the Cabs had a record out, they used to come into Virgin, where I worked.  I had hair down to my waist in those days. They came up to the counter and asked 'Have you got any records by Cabaret Voltaire?'. I’d heard of the name, and what I’d heard about them sounded really intriguing to me. So, I said ‘As far as I know they haven’t got anything out yet, but I’d really be interested in hearing them, cos it’s my kind of thing.’ I remember them being quite shocked that this guy who looked like a Ted Nugent fan was heavily into that kind of that stuff. Ever since then we’ve been mates....

"Mal and Rich and Chris  and their gang were heavily into the sonics of Roxy. Although Mal was heavily into clothes too.  He had two rooms in his flat, and one room was where he lived and the other was his wardrobe – and he had an ironing board in the middle of it. It was just completely full of clothes. Mal was the most stylish person I’d ever met; he always had a consummate sense of style.

“The early Cabs gigs were trying to get a reaction – it was a racket, just squealing noise. And there’d be films behind them of god knows what: biological warfare experiments, people in chemical warfare suits. They’d collect old Super-8 footage of things like that.

"Around 1975 or 1976, we became friends. They had been going since ‘73 or ’74. So, it was a bit after that I got to meet them. They had this studio in this old industrial building. The whole building was called Western Works – and they recorded in it and called the studio Western Works.”

What were they like as people, Cabaret Voltaire?

“Richard’s always been a bit stroppy –in that very Yorkshire way. He can be hellishly stubborn. That’s a typically Yorkshire thing:  ‘if you say don’t do this, I’ll do it’.  He’s got that thing in his voice.

"In Sheffield, it wasn’t like the London Musicians Collective, where everyone’s got wire-rim glasses and that sort of avantgarde middle class attitude. In Sheffield, it was working class Dada. They were heavily into Dada and liked to get a reaction. Wake people up. Richard, then, mainly played guitar and clarinet. Mal did rudimentary bass and vocals, treated beyond legibility."

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Lost in their music

Sometimes, when writing about a revered legend, you can reach a point where you find yourself thinking, "why do I ever listen to anything else but this?". So it was with the subject of my new piece for Tidal, the Chic Organization and its dominance of the Eighties audio Zeitgeist. Listening to non-stop Chic, Sister Sledge, the album Rodgers & Edwards wrote and produced for Diana Ross, etc, for several days, I was truly "living in ecstasy". But then the obsession focused to where I only wanted to play a single single - "Everybody Dance" over and over. Then it zoomed in further still and I was just playing Bernard Edwards's miraculous bass break again and again and again. (Some "air bass" did occur, I confess).   

The famous singles everybody knows and loves - "Le Freak", "Good Times", "We Are Family", "Lost In Music", "I Want Your Love", "He's The Greatest Dancer", "My Forbidden Lover".... 

But how about the ChicOrg deep cuts?

This is almost too obvious to mention, beautifully doubled as it by Robert Wyatt's version

I also found myself fixated on these albums cuts, "Happy Man" and especially "(Funny) Bone" . 

Love the singles off Diana Ross. "Upside Down" particularly - unusually for Chic Org, the fast-flecked rhythm guitar takes a very far-back back seat and the arrangement is based around some wonderful piano vamps. This somewhat overlooked beauty was the third single off the Diana Ross album and funnily enough it's called "My Old Piano". 

"My Feet Keep Dancing" was a Chic single but it felt less familiar to me - it has this wonderful steadfast chugging groove with a slightly involuntary, forced-march feel to it, and then this really gorgeous glassy motif that I think is electric piano, a real ice cube sliding down the back of your neck tingle effect.

Always liked this Carly Simon tune with a lilting, reggae-ish feel 

Monday, September 06, 2021

I had great fun chatting with the Rock's Backpages crew - Barney Hoskyns, Mark Pringle, Jasper Murison-Bowie - for this week's RBP Podcast.  We talked about the UK music press and my time on Melody Maker, about Bob Stanley and Saint Etienne's Foxbase Alpha, about Heaven 17's Penthouse and Pavement and a whole bunch of other things including the late Lee Perry and the late Charlie Watts.  

This week at Rock's Backpages, there's also a spotlight on some of my archival pieces, including a review of the 1987 Monsters of Rock Castle Donington festival, an appreciation of Joy Division based around the film Control, and "Worth Their Wait", a tribute to the print music press of yesteryear,  There's also a 1991 piece of mine on Saint Etienne as part of their St Et spotlight, linked to their new album I've Been Trying To Tell You

They also have a piece on mine of roots and dub reggae as part of their Lee Perry tribute. 

Monday, August 30, 2021



My favoritest Lee Perry (a Woebot turn-on)

Cool typo here - "recorded at BLACK ART STUDIO"

Almost equal favorites 

and the whole of this album 

so many more though.... 

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Hauntology Parish Newsletter - Position Normal!

 Jon Dale pointed me to a flurry of new tracks from Position Normal, the first substantial activity since the third full-length, the self-titled album of 2009.

Initially I was somewhat thrown by the ultrapristine digital sound - so different from the age-faded analogue aesthetic of Stop Your Nonsense and Goodly Time, that worn cassette, fusty-musty aura that triggered the memoradelic regions of the brain.... 

But Matthew Ingram's instant enthusiasm made me return and he's right, it's totally got the old Chris Bailiff magic, which he's somehow soaked and stained through the software of now -  all the affordances in sound quality and tricksy detailing that come with it - so that the outcomes are still bent, creaky, haunty.

Matt has usefully corralled the tunes into a playlist  

You can also check them out at Soundcloud - where there are also earlier tunes from 2 years, 4 years, even 7 years ago....  one is called "Sketch for Album 4"...  that phase of stuff is very ambient  and minimalist, far from song

In his recent Woebot newsletter (you can subscribe here) which bears the title "Lorra Music", Matt writes a lovely appreciation of Position Normal and the new batch o' tunes -  rightly highlighting "Book Looks" as a particular gem, with Chris Bailiff's voice gorgeously mushmumbled, the lyric evoking a man who loves the smell of his own house and the people in it  (ambiguously poised - is it a homebody hymn to the mammalian continuum and that primal snuggling drive to make a dwelling? Or a PiL's "No Birds Do Sing"-style barb against the Englishman's castle idea?). 

Matt writes: 

"pn2021 is done with all the fuzzy analogue stylings and is clear like Listerine. That just makes the preciousness of the tip-toeing sonics more pronounced. Everything is painstakingly wonky and, such is Chris's laudable detachment, built on borrowed equipment. Just try making music as lopsided on today's DAWs - the time and care required to create this kind of spontaneity is mind-blowing."

One of the other tracks Matt singles out, "Lite Bites", seems to have already disappeared, mysteriously. As has one of my own faves from when I last looked - "Bondrun", which sneakily weaves in part of the theme tune to the '70s kids TV show How.  I wonder why - did Chris take fright, grow self-conscious at the sudden "upsurge" in interest? 

At any rate, hasten ye to check the stuff out. 

In the newsletter, which rounds up a bunch of interesting this-parish-and-adjacent releases, including an excellent cassette from Xylitol that I have been meaning to big up, Matt proposes - or rather seeps up from his unconscious  - a genre-not-genre term for this disparate field of low-key activity:

" I was amused when one came to me in a dream: krumble. Where in the nineties and onwards glitch once worked as a useful catchall - now this kind of music is not "futuristic" or in thrall to its digital nature, but rather organic and, like the fabric of western society, decaying. Decaying in a comely, small but rather delicious way..."

krumble - love it!

Matt also directs to an elegy (premature, it now seems) that he wrote for Position Normal earlier this very year, at Discogs...

"Properly divining that the true spirit of the most inventive dance tracks was DIY bedroom music they proceeded to make an eccentric and lo-fi music with rock's palate. Not for Chris Bailiff the sheen and gloss of Seefeel, Tortoise and Broadcast. Bailiff was a fan of Ralph Records' weirdo Snakefinger (a UK expat) and the waning format of the C90 cassette - but his sensibility was pure 1999. Only The Streets' Mike Skinner, a couple of years later in 2001, came as close to defining how it felt to be in the UK at the turn of the century - deconstructed and, if not homesick, timesick.

For all the patina of supposed amateurishness Position Normal's recordings have the exquisitely crafted soundscapes of productions thousands of times their budget. There's a sensitivity to sound here bred of "redeye" 4-in-the-morning sessions; of poring over nuances. All his records are masterpieces and blessed with a delightful tunefulness and charm which entirely escapes most of the desiccated Arts-Council-funded pabulum which clogs up the avant-garde mainstream. Buy."

timesick - love it!

Listening and pondering again the magic of Position Normal, I remembered two things:

1/ I have never heard the precursor-to-Poz stuff, by Bugger Sod. Anyone able to help a feller out? 

2/ I have never ever interviewed Chris Bailiff, which seems a bit remiss, given that Stop Your Nonsense was my favorite album of 1999*, but perhaps reviewing it twice felt like enough at the time, and the opportunity never presented again. Perhaps if Album 4 becomes  more than a sketch, who knows...   

* Funnily enough, with a number of artists whose albums were my ab fav of that particular year, I have never written anything substantial about them - not a feature, but sometimes not even a review. Rangers, Micachu and the Shapes, Metronomy, eMMplekz... Black Moth Super Rainbow just had a very short review ...  A strange state of affairs, really... But then perhaps I was busy doing a book, or maybe I was unconsciously driven to keep the pleasure of listening to them entirely separate from the drudgery of journalism... or even from having to try to come up with some kind of definitive set of ideas about why I liked it so much...  

Monday, August 23, 2021

Inside the Process

Todd L. Burns - who many will remember as the founder of the excellent music webzine Stylus and subsequently helmed various important publications - puts out an unmissable missive, a weekly newsletter called Music Journalism Insider. One of the regular features is called Notes On Process, in which he invites a music journalist to go deep into the background (the writing, editing, etc) of a particular piece.  

Todd asked me to do a Notes on the news story I did about the Castlemorton mega-rave in May 1992.  I realised that the article that ran in Melody Maker's news section was significantly different (more newsy) than the fevered rave convert / eye witness thinkpiece I submitted. So we have both versions up there annotated with queries and comments, discussing the circumstances of the piece, the workings of a weekly music paper, the traveler-raver movement / moment, and the larger question of "the politics of dancing." 

Here are the other earlier installments of Notes on Process. And you can subscribe to Music Journalism Insider here.

Oh and I just this minute noticed that Todd and MJI got  nominated in the Multimedia / English category of an international Music Journalism Award done by the Reeperbahn Festival.

(My kid Kieran is nommed in a different category - his second time of being nominated - will he win again?)

The missus with a piece from 1994 about the Crusty-Raver-Traveler-Squatters versus the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

The Stick Figures / Suburban Lawns

When the groop that became Orange Juice was first assembling its constituent parts, one OJ-to-be put out a musicians-wanted advertisement. It announced "A New York band forming in the Bearsden area" (Bearsden being the posh Glasgow suburb - once rated in the Top Ten wealthiest places to live in Britain - whence they hailed). 

When The Stick Figures were getting it together, it's tempting to imagine one of them putting an ad in the college paper: "A Scottish band forming in the Tampa area".

The Florida postpunk unit, whose slim but succulent body of work is to be reissued by Floating Mill Records, does often recall the fast-funk associated with Postcard and pop: aural at the turn of the Eighties. But there's more in the mix.   

The squirmy but droney bass on "N-Light," for instance, adds some A Certain Ratio flavor but also makes me think of the glittering psychedelic funk of Meat Puppets circa Up on the Sun (and the solo shades off into Byrdsy raga-rock altitudes).  

Still, it would be fair to describe The Stick Figures as Britophiles who also have affinities with similarly aligned hubs and clusters such as Athens, Georgia (Method Actors and Pylon especially) and NYC (the 99 Records roster). 

"September,"  with its piecing female vocals and trancey swirl, is a stand-out tune, while "Make A Fire" trundles sweetly with a Modern Lovers meets Cat Burgers naivete. And the closing pair of "Ellis Otivator Dub"'s - the first dubbed in 1981, the second re-dubbed this year - offer a spiky frenzy in which Perry & Tubby's techniques have been assimilated to the music's core rather than simply plastered over it as a superficial add-on.   

When I was listening to the mixture of released-but-rare and never-issued tunes that makes up the Floating Mill collection  Archeology -  out on September 3 and perusing the pix, I suddenly realized that I'm friends with one of the Stick Figures - Robert Dansby - who I've known for years and who had on a few occasions shyly mentioned his postpunk musicking past!

Here's a bit of history, a condensed version of the press release: 

"The Stick Figures, formed in 1979 by University of South Florida students Rachel Maready Evergreen and David Bowman (siblings), Robert and Sid Dansby (also siblings), and Bill Carey, were a seminal fixture in Tampa, Florida’s deep and talented pool of late-70s/early-80s post-punk groups....  But The Stick Figures [broke up] less than a year after the release of their 1981 eponymous EP. For the last 40 years, those four tracks were The Stick Figures’ complete discography—until now. Archeology, the first release from Floating Mill Records, takes the original EP and adds six previously unreleased songs, two live tracks, and a reimagining of the EP’s experimental “Ellis Otivator Dub.” 

"Citing contemporaries such as Orange Juice, The Buzzcocks, and fellow emerging southern bands Pylon and The B-52s as influences, The Stick Figures’ instrumentation on Archeology frequently and proudly wears a warm, exuberant grin....  Journalist Gary Sperazza!’ ..  named The Stick Figures as the winner of his competition of “unheralded genius” in the June 1981 edition of the New York Rocker, asserting that The Stick Figures are, “if nothing else, better than all the other Velvets/Television/Feelies-derived aggregations” due to a “small fortune in good ideas, entertaining songs and imaginative playing....”   

"...The Stick Figures charted course for the opportunities New York City offered an up-and-coming band, stopping to play shows in Atlanta during the Summer of 1981 on the way. Just as their ambition and talent finally earned interest from a label, Glass Records, the band, whose youngest member was still in their teens, succumbed to being “penniless and young” in an unforgiving Big Apple stuck somewhere between the 1977 blackouts and the 1981 garbage strike. Within a year of the move, some members retreated back to the Sunshine State before even stepping on a New York City stage while others roughed it out, leaving over 1,000 miles of East Coast to divide the group in two and force them to look for artistic fulfillment in other ventures. 

"But that retreat was not with their tails between their legs—The Stick Figures had made something together: a damn good EP (and dozens of equally impressive unreleased tracks). And, as unsung pioneers of the budding indie and DIY music scenes, they really “made” that EP. All five band members designed a cover before photocopying, assembling, and hand-coloring the 7” release themselves—all 500 copies—to be sold by Green Records, the Tampa-based label they formed and ran with the ever-helpful Pam Wiener Dubrule and a handful of other Tampa musicians." 


Now another postpunky reissue out next month on vinyl via Superior Viaduct that's been tickling my cochlea  is the self-titled debut (but also one-and-only) album by Suburban Lawns

Below is what I wrote about them recently for a 10-album guided tour of New Wave I did for the Milan station Radio Raheem

SUBURBAN LAWNS – Suburban Lawns  (1981)

From Long Beach, California, Suburban Lawns had the ultimate New Wave name. Lyrically, their prime subject is the post-WW2 landscape of American banality, that same prefab plastic world satirized in films from The Graduate to Edward Scissorhands. In “Flying Saucer Attack” the citizens of the fast-food nation don’t mind being abducted by aliens so long as “we’re back for work on Monday”. “Mom and Dad and God” scorns the parents’ “mindless devotion to lack of emotion”.

 As with so much New Wave, you sense that these CalArts students can really play: it’s the friction of their ability against punk taboo’s on flashy musicianship that creates the music’s delicious nervous tension. “Janitor” is the jewel: Su Tissue sings not like a rock’n’roller but a librarian with a very peculiar imagination.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Neon Screams on Repeater Radio this Saturday 21st August - discussion between Kit Mackintosh and me

Tune into Repeater Radio on Saturday 21st August for a dialogue between Neon Screams author Kit Mackintosh and myself - going out at 8 pm UK  / 3 pm East Coast / noon West Coast. 

Or listen to it archived on Mixcloud

It's followed by Kit's mix of Neon Screams music at 9 pm UK  / 4 pm East Coast / 1 pm West Coast.

The whole shebang - interview + mix - is repeated for early risers / night owls, starting Sunday 8 am UK / 3 am East Coast / midnight West Coast.

Check out an extract from Neon Screams - on Brooklyn drill - here

And here's an interview with Kit Mackintosh at Tribune - "The Musical Future Has Not Been Cancelled"

And here's a review at Aloysius blog

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

"21st Century Humor" aka "Interdimensional Memes"

 What was once cringe has now become cool again."

Early 2000s nostalgia already... .Internetculture genreologist Kieran Press-Reynolds at Insider on the retro-absurdist meme collages currently infesting TikTok.

"Technologically impressive, hyper-digital spectacles that viewers admire purely because they are so unintelligible… Creators speed up, distort, saturate, stretch, or mutate these pieces of media to maximize the ludicrousness…"

Also contains a potted history of early stages of meme-faddery during the 21st Century so far, including Youtube poops and MLG montage parody.

Monday, August 09, 2021

When Mates Make Books - Kit Mackintosh 'Neon Screams' + Barney Hoskyns 'God Is In The Radio'


In the intro to Rip It Up, I suggest that “young people have a biological right to be excited about the times they're living through”. Elsewhere I have gone further and declared that there's an almost ethical obligation, for a young music writer, to remake your time as an adventure. Talk of rights or duties is rhetoric, but what could be safely ventured as an observation is that there do seem to be a few individuals in each generation who, through some special combination of excitability and ability, are prepared to take on the task of writing up the musical era they happen to inhabit as a rolling real-time golden age. If they're especially fired-up and impatient, they might also shove that vision in the faces and down the throats of the elder-wiser generation, the half-dead septic sceptics. 

Kit Mackintosh is just such a young hothead - a holy convinced convert to his own credo of the 2010s as a  renaissance of sonic futurism. But in Neon Screams: How Drill, Trap and Bashment Made Music New Again - not only his debut book, but his first published writing  - the 25-year-old Mackintosh doesn't simply froth fervour: he makes a case.  Unlike in the hallowed 1990s, he argues, the new phuturism has manifested itself not in the domain of beat-construction or sound-design, but in the interface between pitch-correction software and flamboyantly individualistic MCs and singers. Vocal mutation has been a field of action across the genrescape, from Melodyne-designed Top 40 pop to conceptronica to the online welter of Auto-Tune-blitzed microgenres. But Mackintosh’s focus here is the street sounds – dancehall and trap - where the synergistic symbiosis between soft technology and expressive eccentricity is pushed to the most delirious extremes. Although less prone to what he terms “vocal psychedelia,” UK Drill is also celebrated in Neon Screams as a sonic vanguard rather than just a sociological phenomenon / media panic (although its gang-related lifeworld, as it informs lyric imagery and group self-mythology, necessarily comes into the ultra-vivid picture painted). 

When I read Neon Screams a Marshall McLuhan quote sprang to mind:  “Youth instinctively understand the present environment – the electric drama. It lives mythically and in depth.” In the foreword I contributed to the book, I note how the performers that Mackintosh champions  – Vybz Kartel, Tommy Lee Sparta, Alkaline, Rebel Sixx, Future, Quavo, Young Thug, Playboi Carti, Pop Smoke, to name only the most possessed and Tourettic – seem drawn to Auto-Tune because it “feeds into and magnifies their own grandiose self-images… fits their fantasies of superhero powers.” I further point to the way Mackintosh “surrenders to the mythopoeic visions emanating from this music”, allows them to supercharge his prose through “imaginative contagion”. It's this intense identification and merger with the music, along with the writing's brio, humour, and occasional delicious spurts of spite, that makes Neon Screams such a rush to read.  

Neon Screams is published tomorrow August 10th. There's a London launch event tomorrow for the book and Repeater's reissue of Junglist - it's at the Social, 7pm to 11 pm, details here.  

Look out for a chat between Kit and me about the book’s polemics and provocations on an upcoming Repeater Radio show later this month - it goes on Saturday August 21 at 8pm UK / 3 pm East Coast / noon West Coast and then gets repeated, for early risers / night owls, Sunday 8 am UK / 3 am East Coast / midnight West Coast.  Each broadcast of the discussion is followed by a Kit mix of Neon Screamsy tunes. Try also these playlists - bashment, trap, drill. - for a sense of the sonozeitgeist he's championing.

From a young hero to an older hero…  As I’ve said a few times now, Barney Hoskyns has been a profound formative influence on me - a role model of how and why to do this. And although it's likely more just how things panned out than intentional evolution, I do seem to have mirrored Barney’s arc  - starting out penning delirious mystic-nihilistic paeans to self-“destruction” through sonic ecstasy, then finding a way to a more sane and livable relationship with music; from prophet-of-the-present to  historian of pop and unpop.  In truth, even as he was real-time mythologizing groups like The Birthday Party, The Fall, Blue Orchids, Meat Puppets, Black Flag, et al, from the start Barney had an unusually wide and deep sense of music history: stray references in his pieces to records like Forever Changes, Astral Weeks, and Marquee Moon led me to lifelong revelations, as did features like his 1984 profile of John Martyn - which directed me to Solid Air, another inexhaustible gift. 

It struck me that I might actually own more books by Barney than any other author, with the possible exception of Ballard. It’s a great pleasure to add to the Hoskyns shelf God Is In The Radio, his new career-spanning collection of reviews and interviews.  As the subtitle Unbridled Enthusiasms 1980-2020 makes clear this is a celebration of the artists and recordings that have abided undimmed as sources of solace and sublimity in his life. The scope goes from a luminous Bobby Womack profile to a Burial paean, via insightful career surveys of Scritti Politti and Cocteau Twins (a group I once dismissed as vaporous guff after catching one whole side of Head Over Heels on Peel, until Barney’s review guided me towards the right way to hear them) and another 46 appreciations ranging from Sly Stone and Laura Nyro to Associates and Prefab Sprout.  

As the title God Is In The Radio hints, and as Barney movingly details in the preface’s inventory of stages in his relationship with music starting age four, if there’s a threading subtext that connects these pieces it involves the way music can serve as a substitute sacred for the secular; a surrogate religion offering regular doses of deliverance and transcendence, relief and release. Music stills the voices of doubt and fear; it fills the emptiness; it dissolves the Insoluble. Consistent in its blissing and blessing, it's one of the main reasons to stick around. 

In the preface, Barney writes about suspecting that for him (and by implication people like him) “music is a proxy for emotion itself: it is the way I feel, dissolving the rationalisation of feeling and enabling me to experience joy, desire, pain, loss, sadness, defiance and gratitude that might otherwise remain out of reach.” Certainly, for whatever reasons – nationality, gender, class, or some admixture of the three – music has an unmatched capacity to bring me to tears, in a way that hardly ever happens in real life, even during the worst of trials. (Certain films, too, have this cathartic effect). 

Barney further writes: “Indeed it almost seems to me the point of music that it frees us from the constrictions of thought..." But of course, being constitutively a writer, he can’t help striving to articulate this “speech of the heart”, he wants to think the escape from thought’s constrictions.  His writinghas been a model for me of a criticism that lets itself melt into worship, music journalism that shifts back and forth between telling the story and testifying.  

* which reminds me that writing itself  (alongside dear ones and Nature's beauty) is another of those main reasons to stick around. Doing it, reading it - it's another way to slip through the bars of the self-cell.  

Thursday, August 05, 2021

criminally sweet

"Like a Glucose Overdose" - a piece on Scritti Politti for Tidal, pegged to the new reissue of Cupid & Psyche 85

Not a great video but this single, as sound and song, still seems astounding to me.

This longer "Absolute" has some sampladelic eerieness absented from the 7-inch radio mix above - woogly vocal-science riffage. 


There is also a proper 'extended for the disco floor' 12 inch version that crammed with very '80s FX and feels unnecessarily elongated.  

Amazed me then and amazes me still that this single (the third leading up to Cupid) was not a hit

Another stilted video - Green seated, doubtless to get around his issues with dancing on camera. 

With "Wood Beez" the dancing was out-sourced to Michael Clark! 

Promo-wise "A Word Girl" was slightly better than the first three. And "Perfect Way" was efficiently slick and MTV-ready, pushing Scritti over the edge in America. But overall it's really not a medium that suits Mr. Gartside. 

Interesting that Scritti Mk 3 could so amply master the ultra-pop sound of the mid-80s while still limning it with strangeness - but they couldn't pull off an equivalent feat of excelling / surpassing / subverting when it came to the promo video, such a crucial component of New Pop / the Second British Invasion

Saturday, July 17, 2021

RIP Joe Cassidy

Very sad to hear about the way too young death of Joe Cassidy of Butterfly Child -  purveyors of gorgeous dreampop from Northern Ireland. 

The debut Butterfly Child EP Toothfairy came out on A.R. Kane's label H.ark! in late 1991,  simultaneously with the debut EP from Papa Sprain, his friend Gary McKendry's group. 

I made both the EPs singles of the week in Melody Maker (see below) and around that time spoke with Joe and Gary for a label profile of H.ark!. 

Another Butterfly Child EP, Eucalyptus, followed on H.ark!, and then they recorded an album each for a succession of labels: Rough Trade (Onomatopeia), Dedicated (The Honeymoon Suite), and HitIt! Recordings (Soft Explosives).  

Here's an interview with Joe around his 2015 album Futures done by The Thin Air

And here is a link to the bandcamp for the 2020 album Our Life in the Desert by My Bus a joint project by Joe and Gary McKendry. There, you can read a nice detailed account of the pair's journey through music:

"The emotion comes from a friendship lost, renewed and remembered, or as Joe puts it, 'a love story. One between two friends, the music they share, ex-girlfriends, pals who are no longer with us and the ghosts of old haunts long gone. It is a longing for a Belfast and a time that never really existed.'”

And here's a nice remembrance of Joe from Ned Raggett

And a tribute from Stuart Bailie at the Belfast Telegraph. 

Thursday, July 08, 2021

A busy week for  Kieran Press-Reynolds

He makes his Pitchfork debut with a review of NYC rap crew Surf Gang's latest album SGV1, described as "a mansion of sweet beats and vocal textures... husky whispers, slow-motion chirrups, reverb-laden echoes that flutter into nothingness" and with ensemble rapping that "feels like you’re watching the SoundCloud rap Avengers unite or some crossover episode between two hit TV shows". 

He also makes his Bandcamp debut with a profile of the netlabel dismiss yourself - the "nexus of hex" plus other freaky online microgenres, whose catalogue offers a trove of "glitchy burps", "alien jeers", "videogame ambient," "meme-havoc" and assorted bitcrushed beauty. 

And he's further been busy working at Insider, where he's done some fun pieces like this profile of  Vanessa Clark a.k.a. @glitchgirlmaster, the creator of TikTok's dance-craze of the summer. 

Friday, July 02, 2021

painted into a corner

Recently I read Janet Malcolm's famous New Yorker piece "A Girl of the Zeitgeist" - after her death, someone had tweeted a scan of the first two pages, which misled me into thinking it was a profile of the art critic Rosalind Krauss (a figure who radiates intellectual glamour - albeit not quite enough to get me to read the two books I've bought of hers, as of yet). 

Of course it's not about Krauss, it's a profile of Artforum editor Ingrid Sischy and a trek through the microworld of artists, curators, dealers and critics in 1980s New York.  It's incredibly sharply observed and acerbic stuff. 

One thing that struck me is how that whole milieu with its factions, feuds, spats and schisms resembled another microworld - you guessed it, music criticism. Not in the details or the ideological stakes, and certainly not in the status and money involved, but there seemed to be correspondences in terms of the rhetorical intensities, the investments, the stances struck, the personality types, the bitchiness.

I was particularly taken by a section where Malcolm talks with Carter Ratcliff, who wrote for Artforum and Art in America, and the conversation turns to the flamboyant critic Rene Ricard, whose approach was so different from Ratcliff's cool, dispassionate, historically well-informed way of going about things. (The reference to deAk is to another Artforum critic, Edit deAk, renowned for her fractured and elliptical style).


Reading that passage, it occurred to me that the Ricard approach - what Ratcliff elsewhere describes as a "sort of ecstatic, fanlike involvement... with one thing or another from moment to moment", and which was marginal within the world of art criticism -  occupied a much larger and more central place in  Anglosphere music writing -  and particularly in the U.K.  Such that the Ratcliff mode (deep historical knowledge, understanding of the craft side of making artworks, etc) was the more unusual occurrence, represented within British rock writing by figures like Ian MacDonald and a few others.  

"These gestures he makes in the vicinity of the new painting" seems like something that could be said of a certain breed and lineage of rock writer prone to an oracular, frothing-over mode of testifying, in which wild claims and far-fetched connections might be asserted that had little to do with the intentions or concerns of the artist. 

Another section in "A Girl of the Zeitgeist" also seemed to have a possibly discomfiting resemblance to certain phases of certain music papers. This time it's the critics Thomas McEvilly and Max Kozloff who are speaking:

Fortunately the weekly music papers - being so large and coming out so frequently and therefore having so much space to fill -  were almost forced  to be pluralist.  Unlike a monthly periodical with smaller space and a tighter coterie of writers, such as  '70s Artforum or October, the journal founded by Krauss and others who quit Artforum after an ideological rift. But also unlike a music fanzine. Of necessity, just to fill up the pages on a weekly basis, each music paper accommodated many voices. Consensus was harder to marshal except at exceptional moments of urgency in music history, like punk.  And even then, there were other kinds of music that needed to be covered - the established music scene and older bands didn't just cease to exist punctually with the arrival of punk, they kept on putting out records and touring. And there were genres completely outside the Old Wave / New Wave rock narrative. 

The closest thing to 1970s Artforum in music paper history I can think of is NME's almost-total exclusion of New Wave of British Heavy Metal and Oi! from coverage. But even then, it wasn't like the paper was 100 % post-punk. *

Also fortunately, even those music writers with I-Be-the-Prophet traits, tended to be more plural in their tastes. The  fast-moving, ever-changing nature of the music scene would usually buffet them out of their tunnel-vision fixity, forcing a rethink. Or they might simply be attracted by different scenes/sounds at the same time, requiring the suppleness to entertain different value-schemes simultaneously, oscillating between ideas from piece to piece.  


Still, I have to say (and here's where the forbidding intellectual glamour of Krauss comes in) I can't help but admire, still, this drive to totalize the field of current art production, to create a shapely picture that shoves the irrelevant to one side and projects a forward path through the mess. 

Because nothing's lamer or less useful really than eclecticism - liking a bit of this, liking a bit of that, for quite different reasons. Someone operating as a critic from that sort of non-stance, however neat their turn of phrase or sharp their sporadic insights...  it seems like a bit of a cop out really. I mean, from what basis do you issue your opinions?  If you've not mustered the will and determination and sense of purpose to formulate a system, or even a coherent perspective, why then should I put any credence in what is really just a random succession of reactions and judgements?   

It's a career path, though, for sure.... 

Someone once quipped of me - this was at the peak of my MBV/AR Kane/first-phase post-rock belief in the becoming-abstract destiny of electric guitar music,  the figurative focus of the human voice disappearing into rippling bliss-folds, texture >text - that I was in danger of becoming the Clement Greenberg of rock crit. Now I had not heard of Greenberg, so quickly acquainted myself with the precepts -  and concluded that this was simultaneously a high compliment and a sly and savagely on-point insult. (And perhaps a sage bit of advice, a friendly warning).

Luckily, rave came along to knock me out of that particular loop and into a different orbit...  

* Belatedly recalled this comment made to me by Andy Gill, who wrote and edited for NME during the postpunk / new pop / soulboys versus indie era: "We used to have editorial meetings at NME - they were ghastly affairs, arguments about genres and which things should be covered and which things should be ignored. I would be thinking 'we should just cover all of this'. I could never understand the factionalism, and the absolutist nature of the factionalism".

But I suppose what I'm saying is, "I did  - and still do - understand the factionalism, and the absolutist nature of the factionalism. Wouldn't necessarily want to live there anymore... but I also know it gets results".