Thursday, December 22, 2011

from Melody Maker's gossip/satire pages, sometime in late 1986 or early 1987 - affectionate pisstake of our comrade Frank Owen (the PhD-totin', cult-studs stud responsible for most of the paper's coverage of hip hop at that time) cobbled together by David Stubbs and me

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Friday, October 7, 2011

Spin, 1999

by Simon Reynolds

"Have you got any Jack Purcell's?" asks Richard Fearless.

The burly sales clerk in Sports Authority looks blank.

"It's a make of trainers," Fearless explains.

The sales clerk looks blanker still.

"Sneakers, Rich-- in America, they call 'em sneakers," translates Tim Holmes, Fearless's sound engineer partner in Death In Vegas.

Arriving in New York, the first thing British bands --especially those affiliated to dance music--tend to do is hunt down the latest lines of name-brand sneakers. It seems typical of Richard Fearless that his holy grail is a ultra-obscure brand named after a post-war tennis champion; a brand he became obsessed with after spotting them on Elvis Presley's feet in a classic 1950s stage photograph. Style is something of an obsession for Fearless, who's reknowned in Britain for his mod-influenced sharp-dressed look, who recently turned down a Calvin Klein TV commercial, and whose prized pair of Patrick Cox snakeskin loafers were stolen when he passed out after DJing at a club.

Today, hitting the street again after the fruitless footwear quest, he's looking relatively under-dressed in a long sleeve pink shirt and faded jeans with the silver letters AC and DC stenciled on alternate buttocks. Still, in many ways Fearless and his band represent every Anglophobe's nightmare of style-over-content Limey art-rock. After getting an art scholarship at a boarding school aged 13, Fearless went on to study Fine Art at college, before switching to a graphic design degree course at the London College of Printing. It's in his blood: his mother is an art teacher and his sister designs shoes. Even his voice has the classic UK art school rock accent--middle class, but slurred and mumbly in a downwardly mobile effort to suppress its innately posh crispness and clarity.

Wandering the streets of mid-town Manhattan, Fearless's aesthete's eye is constantly
captivated. "What a marvellous little old man!" he enthuses as a dapper, David Lynch-
esque geezer waddles past. Fearless keeps stopping to take snaps of showroom dummies
in store windows--the mis-shapen, poorly executed physiognomy of mass-produced
mannequins fascinates him. One of his many projects on the go--which encompass a
movie about India influenced by Sixties experimental film-maker Harry Smith, a
documentary about Elvis fans, and a film score--is putting together an exhibition of his mannequin photos.

Over lunch at a noodle diner near Times Square, Fearless explains how Death In Vegas's
visuals are equally as important as its sonics. His record contract includes a clause that gives him total control of all aspects of the band's presentation--not just the cover art, but the advertisements too. Better still, he notes gleefully, the record company "has to pay us separately for the art work--including any amendments." For Fearless does it all himself, right down to the fonts--like the Gothic typography used on Death In Vegas's new album The Contino Sessions, which he hand-copied from Luftwaffe insignia.

Inspired by a James Ellroy character, Contino Rooms is the name of Death In Vegas's twin studio HQ in North London. With Holmes tweaking the music in one room and design partner Will Bevan finessing the imagery in the other, Fearless flits back and forth all day overseeing the work-in-progress. "With the new album, we were designing the sleeve while we were making the music," he says, a boyish grin brightening his pallid features.

Death In Vegas's dark 'n' dubby debut 1997 Dead Elvis was lumped in with the Big Beat
scene, largely because of Fearless's DJ residency at the Heavenly Social, the London club made famous by The Chemical Brothers. But with Contino, Fearless has broken decisively with that scene's relentlessly cheery antics and pledged his allegiance to moody, tripped-out trance rock---Sixties garage punks like Thirteenth Floor Elevators and Chocolate Watchband, the manic-depressive mantras of Velvet Underground and The Stooges, and, most of all, all the late Eighties neo-psychedelic resurgence of My Bloody Valentine, Loop, and Spacemen 3 that so enthralled Fearless when he was 17.

Contino Sessions mostly consists of instrumentals, such as the album's highpoint "Flying"--a celestial pageant of ringing, iridescent guitars that recalls Neu! and Harmonia, Fearless's Krautrock faves. But there are vocal cameos from archetypal leather-trousered rockers such as Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie, Jesus & Mary Chain's Jim Reid, and Iggy Pop, who contributed a psychosis-by-numbers monologue to "Aisha".

"Iggy was just a stab in the dark," explains Fearless, wolfing down food from the three
heaped and steaming dishes he's ordered. "We wrote a track for him, got our manager to
contact his manager, sent him a letter. It was a bit of a dream really that he said yes." The session took place in New York's Electric Ladyland studios. "Iggy turned up in a torn black T-shirt with the sleeves ripped off, blue drainpipe Levis, and black biker boots," recalls Holmes. "He did the vocal, and we just stood there open-mouthed." Holmes was was so buzzed by this encounter with his hero that he rushed out immediately afterwards and bought a pair of sneakers, only to find out later they were "three sizes too small".

Despite the duo's love of all things Iggy-esque and the new album's boycott of the
dancefloor, Death In Vegas remains very much a product of the last decade of UK rave
culture. Fearless describes the late Eighties acid house revolution as "my punk rock," and when he DJ-s he mostly plays Detroit techno. "I'm still excited by dance music, but with Contino we were trying to get away from that whole electronica tag, which seemed to be exploding here. It would have been too easy to make an album that would have ridden on that wave."

Although it sounds like incandescent rock'n'roll, Contino's mode of construction owes a lot to dance music. "What I love about the best dub reggae and techno is how hypnotic and monotonous it is," says Fearless indistinctly through a mouthful of fried rice. "When there is a change, you notice it so much more. That's what we tried to do with our album, but using live musicians."

Fearless can't play any instruments himself. Instead, he and Holmes operate as sound painters--sketching the outlines of songs, then using "real" musicians as a palette of colors. "We get the guys to play along to the tracks, and then we sample and rework the best bits, " explains Holmes, looking glum because his cellophane noodles with sliced pork haven't materialized. On Contino Sessions, the result
is a DJ's simulacrum of psychedelic rock--fuzzed-out, distorted, but looped and layered electronica-style.

If there's a drawback to this DJ/designer's sensibility to arranging sound, it's that it is necessarily somewhat detached. Unlike their inspirations from Moby Grape to
Spiritualized, Death In Vegas songs don't seem to be driven by urgent emotions. Adapting the Velvet Underground drone-rock aesthetic into a sort of wallpaper-of-noise, The Contino Sessions works as gloriously cinematic mood-food rather than soul-wrenched expression.

All the words on the album are written by the guest vocalists. "For me, it's all about sound," says Fearless. "I just can't take what goes on in my head and put it onto paper as lyrics. Being extremely dyslexic doesn't help." He claims that his brand of chronic dyslexia doesn't affect his reading abilities, only writing and arithmetic: "When somebody leaves a phone number on my answer-machine, I have to get someone else to write it down!"

And then, incorrigible art school rocker that he is, Fearless is pivoting 180 degrees in his seat and training his camera on a waiter at a distant table. The boy just can't help it.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Hour Logic
(Hippos In Tanks)
(NNA Tapes)
director's cut, The Wire, August 2011

by Simon Reynolds

Laugh-out-loud moments are few and far between in the work of Fredric Jameson. But A Singular Modernity did elicit a chuckle from me – the laughter of uneasy self-recognition –with its characterization of the modernists as obsessed with “measurement”. Surveying the cultural landscape, fellows like Ezra Pound tabulated innovations levels, keeping inventory of “partial breakthroughs” and “intensities” that seemed to herald a new world.

The past decade has witnessed the steady incapacitation of this mode of assessing music. Just as linear directionality within culture has dissolved thanks to the internet’s effects on time and space, likewise it’s hard to locate a metric by which you could determine whether a particular artist or genre is more advanced than another. It was easier during the 1990s, at least within electronic dance music: change was felt viscerally, as an exponential rise in how challenging music was to dance to or simply withstand as a sonic onslaught. Beats got faster and more complex; bass grew gnarlier and heavier yet also more intricately molded and morphed. In the 2000s, this onward-and-outward drive gradually crumbled into the current swampy state of every-which-way: a hyperactive yet static end of history in which producers receive ovations for making records that sound like early 1990s House and ‘future garage’ is a two-steps back retreat to the skippy beats of 1999.

Atemporality, some folks call it. Yet it doesn’t have to be a predicament. Look at the way artists associated with the post-noise underground (the roster of Not Not Fun’s sub-label 100% Silk, for instance) offer an outsider’s take on dance music history, treating its archival deposits the same way they do New Age and 1980s ‘yacht rock’, as Play-Doh to be twisted into new shapes.

This is where Brooklyn’s Laurel Halo is coming from. Her music is neither referential nor reverential, but if you’ve listened to electronic music for a good while you will hear in her work a host of... let’s not say ghosts (there's nothing morbid or musty about Halo’s sound), let's say sprites: everyone from Ryuichi Sakomoto to Enya, Andreas Vollenweider to Danielle Dax, Ralph Lundsten to Laurie Spiegel. Specifically in dance terms, the feel is often undeniably early-to-mid 1990s: “Aquifer”, the opening track on the Hour Logic EP, had me flashing on Ken Ishii’s R&S releases, while elsewhere you might be minded of the early Black Dog, the young Carl Craig, or other producers who recorded for Kirk DeGiorgio's ART label.

Like these precursors Halo’s music finds the fine line between clubby floor-fodder and homebodied brain-food. What we have here isn’t so much Intelligent Dance Music, though, as Superfuckin’ Intellectual Dance Music. In interviews Halo discourses fluently about arcane concepts like ‘aural apophenia’ and ‘memory asymptotes’, while citing as inspirations everything from the Gnostic SF of Philip K Dick's VALIS to Hajime Sorayama’s super-realist soft porn. But Halo’s patter never seems willfully obscure or ostentatiously cerebral. It’s just a young, open mind looking for a harmonious connective logic to integrate all the things that arouse its curiosity, while also reaching for a language to describe and explain music whose operations and sensations are maddeningly resistant to verbalisation.

Hour Logic literally gives up on words: unlike last year’s song-and-lyric oriented King Felix, it’s almost completely vocal-free. “Constant Index” is the sole tune here that sticks with Felix’s 1980s 4AD vibe, which suggested an imaginary MARRS full-length with Colourbox calling on the blurry-voice talents of Elizabeth Fraser and Lisa Gerrard. Throughout Hour Logic, there’s a feeling of panoply, a luscious and fragrant sensuousness. The title track is a little marvel of audio feng shui, balancing wide and warm horizons of synth-waft with a chalky-yet-fluorescent bassline, gossamer percussion, and pensive chords. On “Strength In Free Space”, textures fan out and shimmer like a peacock’s tail. "Speed of Rain" shifts back and forth between boombastic surges of breakbeat-like propulsion and lulls of cascading serenity, like a jogger in a Japanese garden repeatedly halting to admire a koi pond or waterfall. But the absolute stand-out piece, “Head”, leaves behind loveliness. A dislocated pulsebeat, like a trance drum-roll build plucked from context and stretched out into a long ribbon of rhythm, forms a sort of endlessly suspended climax. The music brims towards a singularity, an exquisite crisis: flanged sounds converge at a sort of three-dimensional crossroads, forming a helix of tones that hovers, plangently, before scattering in disarray.

“Head” and “Strength In Free Space” both recur on Antenna, a side dish to the main feast. Like Hour Logic, this tape is nearly the length of an LP. But the contents are less structured: swatches of fabric whose patterns are attractive but would be more impressive still if cut and styled into garments. There's a shitload of Ambient music and minimalist composition already extant in the world and Antenna sometimes recalls earlier efforts in an overcrowded field: Meredith Monk-like mouth music, with the milky, churning nebula that is “Impulse”, while “Dia Sapien” grinds and purrs like an offcut from Seefeel’s Quique, and “Zoo Hypothesis” could be “In Dark Trees (Coil’s Sidereal Vicious Mix)”. Best of the batch are “Heuristic Gag Factory” (Blade Runner re-scored by Monolake) and “Factory Reset” (a cat’s cradle of pitch-modulated vocal warbles/wobbles).

Sky and ocean are major inspirations for Halo, in particular notions of suspension, diving, and freefall. These sensations all have a blissful-yet-perturbing effect on one’s sense of orientation. Which has a certain resonance with the notion of atemporality: the archaic modernist impulse to ‘push things forward’ blocked by the impasse of ‘which way would that be, then?’ Halo is well aware of these issues, and has talked eloquently of a vague-ening of memory caused by our brains starting “to mimic our patterns of information retrieval and consumption on the Internet – to the point where... we move towards this eternal Present.” The upside is that “you can make all these interesting sounds out of this rubble of time quickening”.

A whole heap of futures have stacked up behind electronic dance and non-dance music across three or more decades of unrelenting advance. But rather than striving strenuously and futilely for some kind of alien beyond, or lapsing into wistful, epigonic classicism, Halo flicks through all these futures-past like the pages of a flip book. The result – if such a thing could still be measured – feels new and now.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Melody Maker, 17 September 1987

by Simon Reynolds

TILLBURG, HOLLAND: the Monsters Of Rock tour continues its traipse across Europe. There's no hard rain of piss bottles, and instead of mud there's Astroturf, but the William II Stadium, like Donington, is a vast human sty, a seeping eye-sore. The fans have gathered to celebrate together the belief that being yourself means wallowing in the worst that you're capable of, that true letting go involves lowering yourself, that any kind of grooming or self-nurture is a pretense, and that only neglect or active self-abuse are "authentic".

The men look like Vikings who've been out of service for a while, who are turning into couch potatoes. The women look like wenches. Everywhere you see the same slightly discolored flaxen hair, straggling over collars or drooping from upper lips. Men with huge guts, and bellybuttons you could lose a hand in, stagger around shirtless. One fellow, as gross as a shaved sow, nearly brains my diminutive Island Records chaperone with his bloated and glistening stomach.

Stepping gingerly over babbling brooks of urine, and comatose spectators, we somehow gravitate towards what must surely be the lowest spot in the entire festival. A gang of oafs are acting up for the benefit of a photographer from a Dutch music rag. They decide to make cruel sport with one of their number who's completely unconscious, drag him to his feet and pull his pants down for the camera. He comes to, struggles to escape like a hog in a slaughterhouse, makes feeble inebriate attempts to cover his modesty, but his "mates" keep pulling down his trousers, then turn him round so his privates are on display. A throng of onlookers snigger and cackle like serfs at a bear-bait or badger-taunt. Then all five moon in a row, to cheers. Unsightly. Unappetising. Gagging, we flee.

In this milieu of baseness and fatuity, Anthrax are a massive and caustic act of hygiene. As people, they're chummy and easygoing and up for fun, but – bar the regrettable faffing around of the 'I Am The Man' spoof-rap – their music is charged up with an apocalyptic sobriety. Metallica and Anthrax are to trad heavy metal (in all its 57 varieties of idiocy) what the Protestant Reformation was to Catholicism. A rigorous and purgative initiative whose aim is take metal out the Middle Ages and into modernity. Metal's medievalism is vested not just in its emotional repertoire – the themes of warrior manhood, honour, revenge and righteous violence, the fascination with Satan – but in the gaudy pantomime and ossified ritual of performance (which is what the peasant hordes out there lurve). Metallica and Anthrax are trying to replace all that by literacy and self-effacement.

In any other pop genre, this demystification would be a reductive maneuver; raising of consciousness so often leads to inhibited music (one thinks of the clipped, constipated Au Pairs approach to agit-pop, the Redskins/Faith Brothers brand of "sensible soul", the dwarfism of The Wedding Present school of authenticity). But the fundamental musical propositions of HM simply are gigantism, disproportion, and exaggeration; what Anthrax have done is retain the sheer mass of metal while excising what's laughable and embarrassing about its content. But hysteria is the essence of the idiom, so they've managed this by replacing tight-trousered hyperlust with an equally histrionic pitch of denunciation.

Hence the magnificent new single, 'Make Me Laugh', a splendid tirade against TV evangelism. Not that it tells me anything I don't already know; but the venom caused by the subject matter was clearly necessary to sustain the severity of the music.

Charlie Benante, drummer, explains in his thick New York Italian accent: "There's a lot of these guys in America. You turn on a channel, and you see a coliseum-type place, and there's this preacher looking out at you through the camera with this imploring expression, and he goes on about the will of God, and 'we really need the money'. And we see this all the time, and we think, 'this is so ridiculous'. It makes us laugh. But the sad part, the unfunny part, is that people believe in all this shit because they have nothing else to believe in. And the evil part is that this guy is sucking the lost and lonely in, brainwashing them to send in money and then everything will be beautiful. It's sick."

Do you think that the evangelists don't actually believe that they're the instrument of the Lord, that it's all a money-making con?

"No, I don't think they do believe what they say. Maybe some of it. I don't know. The main thing is they're making a lotta money out of this. It's a big fraud. All the money goes back into making more money, not good works."

What do you think you achieve, when you speak out on an issue like this? Education?

Joey Belladona (singer): "No. We don't have anything we want to get across to anybody. It's just something interesting to talk about."

Charlie: "Maybe it does make people more aware of what's goin' on."

Joey: "But it ain't preachy, man."

Charlie: "The other thing is that a lot of these evangelist organisations are ready to put down heavy metal music as corrupting, and there's the PMRC, but in reality they are the bad eggs, the mind-manipulators. All we're doing is playing our music. The thing that hurts us is when some kid commits suicide, and they find a tape in his room with Anthrax, Ozzy, etc on it – and right away, they blame the music. They don't go into the background of how the kid got fucked up, how his family was. Could be that the music was what kept the kid going for so long, his only reason for living. Who knows?"

Do they think that the emergence of Anthrax and Metallica within the addled genre represents a moral regeneration for metal – away from the glamorization of living fast and on the edge?

Joey: "Fast cars, sex and drugs, you mean?"

Charlie: "Metal has always had this larger than life image. We're more into being real. Onstage, people throw things at us, we bleed. We're not invulnerable. We just try to be on the same level as our audience – except we're onstage."

And along with a moral regeneration, there's a musical regeneration too – a return to discipline and precision after a long period in which metal has been slack and enervated and...

"Sloppy? Yeah, we try to run a fit band. Some lady was interviewing us last night, and she said 'a lot of it sounds like noise'. I took this kinda personally. We're pretty hot musicians, the stuff we play is pretty complex. It's not chaos, so if someone calls it 'noise', I get annoyed."

Is this like Metallica's vexation at being labelled "thrash", because it suggested some kind of shambles?

"I don't mind the tag, but only in the sense that kids come to our shows, and they thrash."

It's interesting that another of the tirades on the album is a song called 'Antisocial'. Traditionally, rock, and especially metal, has prided itself on being outside the law, careless and vandalistically self-directed. But here are you – with your temperance, your steady girlfriends, and "antisocial" is a term of abuse aimed at big corporations and the uncaring wealthy...

"Well, we didn't write that song, it's a cover of a track by Trust, this French political hard rock band. We agree with the lyrics, though."

The irony is that you combine this social concern with metal viciousness, whereas the bands who still try to peddle the renegade mythology (Guns 'N' Roses etc) have this blow-dried, weedy sound. What do you feel about "lite metal", its sentimentality and romanticism?

"A lot of people think you have to be flamboyant onstage, but it's not our way. We wear shorts, that's about as far as we'll go into dressing up. We're like these kids going out into the yard to play. But kids today are pretty smart, they can relate to us looking the same as them, they don't need all this glam shit."

You've been quoted as saying that the new album, State Of Euphoria, is your best yet...

"It's the most complete. We spent more time on it."

Do you ever worry about whether you'll be able to exceed what you've done before?

Joey: "We're just starting to get a groove going. This is the first album I've been properly integrated into the band."

Could you ever contemplate a complete step sideways?

Charlie: "Nah. I don't wanna drastic change. That's not what we set out to do. We'd get a lot of heat from people who are into us, if we changed. We're just getting a groove together, paving a way for us. When I was into a band as a kid, and they made a drastic change with the new album, did the album 'they felt they had to make', I felt so bad, it was like betrayal."

With something as unitary and monomaniac and, in the best sense, one-dimensional as Anthrax, though, each of you must have unrealised musical ambitions, wayward impulses that you have to keep in check for the collective good?

Joey: "We probably have fantasies of things we might do, but that doesn't involve or affect Anthrax at all. Those impulses don't matter, and if we indulged them within the group, we'd just get sideswiped from what we're doing. As musicians we're versatile and accomplished enough to do pretty much what we like. But not within Anthrax."

The one idea Anthrax keep returning to is the desire to be "real". And this obsession means they've not only taken metal out of medievalism into modernity, they've actually made it to the 20th Century. As such, they're unique (Megadeth by comparison, are 16th century millenarians gleefully waiting the impending Armageddon, Metallica perhaps Lutherans for whom the world is a huge globe of excrement and life merely a harvest of sorrow). The obsession with "realism" and "authenticity" is one of the great cultural symptoms of our era, a belief in cutting through artifice, role-play, protocols, social codes, rigmarole, mystique and mystification. This century has seen the burgeoning of counselling and therapeutic organisations who encourage the opening up and display of emotional innards, and who condemn dissimulation of the border between public and private life (think of the Goldman book, the focus on Dukakis' history of mental health); and culturally, from the nouveau roman to 'Brookside', there's been an attempt to "free" content of the prettifying veils of form, in order to achieve a completely "transparent" reproduction of reality.

At its most neurotic extreme, this longing to get in touch with "reality" leads to a kind of pornography of the real. This is the addiction to images of abjection, violence and catastrophe, because these are regarded as instances of reality in extremis, life at its most "demystified" and unromanticised and explicit. The whole aesthetic of hardcore (from Black Flag to Big Black) is based on such a pornography of the real, on a perverse pleasure in the worst this world has to offer. Anthrax and Metallica are driven by a similar desire to tear off the veils of false consciousness. While not descending to the carnographic depths of a Slayer, they do have a morbid interest in war and exploitation that reminds me of anarcho-punk groups like Dischord or even the mystical nihilism of The Pop Group. You could say that Anthrax have implanted the "soul" of hardcore inside the body of heavy metal.

A side effect of their distaste for mystification is in an attitude to the Love Song that reminds me of the Gang Of Four, as shown in songs like 'Damaged Goods' and, ironically enough, 'Love Like Anthrax'. Anthrax once declared that they'll never write a song with the word "love" in it.

Charlie: "Scott [guitarist and lyricist] feels that 'Finale' is the Anthrax love song. It's about being in a situation where you're with this person – it could be a boy or girl singing the song – and you've been with them for so long you fuckin' hate her, but you just go through with it. And then the song goes, 'finally he broke away'. But I can't see us writing love songs or ballads, it's not us. What we're about, is what I think metal should be about, that kinda 'no room to let up' attitude."

Are Anthrax as a band anti-romanticist?

"Personally, we're all romantic, we all have girlfriends. As a band, we try to have a positive attitude to life. We don't want to dwell on death, or glorify it, cos it ain't glorious. But I suppose we do like to think about evil things. You see I'm a great horror fan. The song 'Now It's Dark' off the new album, that was inspired by Blue Velvet. I told Scott, you gotta write a song about Frank Booth. You see, everybody is Frank Booth, there's some of that psycho in everybody."

Why does that potential fascinate you?

"'Cos there's good and evil in everybody. Everybody has bad thoughts, little impulses, maybe even on the level of wanting to trip somebody up, for no good reason. All I'm saying is, face up to it."

Was punk a crucial influence?

"Musically, yes. I was into Sex Pistols when they were huge and happening. I liked The Clash. I never adapted to the look though. But I just thought punk was cool. I liked Johnny Rotten, he was like this rotten teenage kid, who just did what he wanted to do, said what he wanted to say. The whole thing of being anti-establishment, the politics, I never bothered with that stuff. Sometimes, you get into that, it ruins the music. That's one of the reasons I like Public Enemy so much. I know they said a lot of bad shit in the press, but I'm trying to ignore that so I can get off on the intensity of the music, and its originality."

At one point, it seemed like speed metal and hardcore punk were going to merge, as "speedcore" or "thrash"... Is that still happening?

"It seemed like it was gonna happen, but it never did, they went apart again. I think they're really separate kinds of musics."

But the whole spirit of Anthrax – from your lyrics to your near "straight edge" attitude to drugs and drink – is closer to hardcore than heavy metal.

"I don't know about that. But as far as we're concerned, you just can't stand up onstage and sing about 'lovechild' and 'we're gonna party' and all that shit. It's ridiculous, it's so thin, so plastic. We like to sing about reality, everyday life, much more than 'baby, I love your spiked heels'. I don't know what you call that kind of rock – slut rock, glam rock, cock rock – but it's finished now. It's over."

Sunday, September 11, 2011


1/ ITALY TOUR, mid-September

PISTOIA / 18th September

Arcana Puccini festival (September 11th – 18th)
organised by Nevrosi

Sunday 18th September - 10.30 am
Hall of Saint Dominic Friary, Pistoia (piazza San Domenico, 1)
Nevrosi and John Vignola meet Simon Reynolds
A “question time” is held for music critics and practitioners, who must submit questions or topics to be be admitted, seats being limited. Send questons to

Sunday 18th September - 3.00 pm
Hall of Saint Dominic Friary, Pistoia (piazza San Domenico, 1)
Panel with Simon Reynolds, Zakhar Prilepin, Jaroslaw Mikolajevski, Paolo Cognetti, John Vignola. Moderator: Goffredo Fofi.
A talk about weaves, affinities and differences between western and eastern culture production processes.

ROME / Monday 19th SEPTEMBER

6.00 – 7.30 Lecture at John Cabot University (Aula Magna)

9.30pm PRESENTATION of RETROMANIA at Circolo degli Artisti - Via Casilina Vecchia 42
with Alberto Piccinini, Federico Guglielmi (Mucchio Selvaggio), Emiliano Colasanti ( Blow Up), Claudia Durastanti (writer).

followed by DJ sets by Simon Reynolds, Lele Sacchi

MILAN / Tuesday 20th SEPTEMBER

7.00 pm - PRESENTATION of RETROMANIA at FNAC Bookshop - Via della Palla 2
with Carlo Antonelli

10.30pm to 1.00 AM - DJ sets by Simon Reynolds, Lele Sacchi, at ATOMIC - Via Panfilo Castaldi

2/ WEST COAST USA TOUR, Late September

PORTLAND - Monday, September 26

1005 W. BurnsidePortland, OR 97209

Dialogue with Douglas Wolk, followed by Q&A and book signing.

SEATTLE / Tuesday, September 27

7:00 PM to 8:30 PM PT THE GROTTO (downstairs at the Rendezvous restaurant)
2322 Second Ave. Seattle, WA 98121

Dialogue with Luke Burbank followed by Q & A and book signing

BERKELEY / Wednesday, September 28

2349 Shattuck Ave. Berkeley, CA 94704

talk/Q&A/book signing

SAN FRANCISCO / Thursday, September 29

7:30 PM to 9:00 PM BOOKSMITH
1644 Haight St. San Francisco, CA 94117

Dialogue with Scott Hewicker, followed by Q&A and book signing.

LOS ANGELES / Sunday, October 2

8300 Santa Monica Boulevard
West Hollywood, CA 90069-6216

Panel event/signing. Also on the panel are Kent Crowley (author of 'Surf Beat,') and moderator Nic Adler.

precise location details TK

Friday, September 9, 2011

director's cut The Wire, 2008

By Simon Reynolds

Easily the most precious sonic artifacts in my possession are the tapes I made of London pirate radio shows in the early Nineties. Everything else is replaceable, albeit in some cases at considerable effort and expense. But these ardkore rave and early jungle tapes are almost certainly irrecoverable: given the large number of stations active then, the sheer tonnage of 24 hours/Friday-Saturday-Sunday broadcasting, and the drug-messy non-professionalism of the DJ-and-MC crews of those days, it's highly likely my recording is the only documentation extant of any given show.

In which case, if only I'd used higher quality cassettes! Before I got wise, I'd tape over unwanted advance tapes from record labels: since the radio signal could often be poor, buying chrome blanks seemed a waste . Plus, in those early days, I wasn't doing it out of some archival preservationist impulse. Like a lot of ravers I was just taping to get hold of the music, something hard to do otherwise because deejays rarely identified tunes. Later I'd discover that many were dubplates that wouldn't be in the shops for months anyway; in some cases, they were test pressing experiments that never got released at all. I was taping simply to have the music to play through the week when the pirates mostly dropped off the airwaves, and in 1993, when I spent large chunks of the year in New York, I took the tapes with me to keep the rave flame burning during my exile.

These relics of UK rave's heyday are editions-of-one because they're mutilated by my spontaneous editing decisions: switching between stations repeatedly when a pirate show's energy dimmed, or the DJ dropped a run of tracks I'd taped several times already; cutting off arbitrarily when I couldn't stay awake any longer, or dwindling into lameness because I'd left the tape running and went off to do something else. In the early days I often pressed 'pause' when the commercial breaks came on, something I now regret because those that survived are among my absolute favourite bits. With their goofy, made-on-the-fly quality, the ads for the big raves and the pirate station jingles contribute heavily to the dense layering of socio-cultural data and period vibes that make these tapes so valuable.

The crucial added element to these tapes, something you don't get from the original vinyl 12 inches played in isolation or even from the official DJ mix-tapes and mix-CDs of the era, is life. In two senses: the autobiographical imprint of my personal early Nineties, someone hurled disoriented into the vortex of the UK rave scene and still figuring it out, but also the live-and-direct messiness of deejays mixing on the fly and using whatever new tunes were in the shops that week, of MCs randomizing further with their gritty and witty patter. The tapes are capsules of a living culture. Something about the mode of transmission itself seems to intensify the music, with radio's compression effect exaggerating hardcore's already imbalanced frequency spectrum of treble-sparkly high end and sub-bass rumblizm. Pirate deejays, typically mid-level jocks or amateurs, also took more risks than big-name DJs crowd-pleasing at the mega-raves. Playing to a home-listening or car-driving audience, the DJs mixed with an edge-of-chaos looseness and squeezed in some of the scene's odder output rather than just sticking to floor-filling anthems.

Oh, they're not all pure gold, these tapes. Many shows stayed stuck at "decent" or slumped outright into "tepid". But the ones that ignited… ooh gosh! The vital alchemical catalyst was invariably the MC. On some sessions, it's like a flash-of-the- spirit has possessed the rapper, as electrifying to the ears as a first-class Pentecostal preacher or demagogue; you sense the MC and the decktician spurring each other to higher heights. It tends to be the lesser knowns that thrill me most: not the famous big-rave jungle toasters like Moose or Five-O but forgotten figures like OC and Ryme Tyme, who forged unique styles that melded the commanding cadences and gruff rootsiness of U-Roy-style deejay talkover with the chirpy hyperkinesis of nutty rave, or collided barrow boy argy-bargy with B-boy human beatboxing. Some of these tapes I know so well that the tracks are inseparable from the chants and the chatter entwined around the drops and melody-riffs; years later when I finally worked out what the mystery tunes were and bought them, they sounded flat without that extra layer of rhythmatized speech thickening the breakbeat broth.

[graph monitoring pirate radio activity from Touch magazine, circa 1994]

1992 to 1994, ardkore to darkcore to jungle, is the prime period for me. I seldom revisit the drum and bass years, when things got serious; things pick up again with the poptastic re-efflorescence of UK garage and 2step, when the number of London pirates resurged to its highest level. Grime is an odd one: I've got masses of tapes, and there's masses more to be found archived on the web, but the emergence of the MC as a capital A artist strikes me as a mixed blessing. With one eye on their career prospects (an album deal) the MCs increasingly came in with pre-written verses, reams of carefully crafted verbiage dropped with little regard to how it fit the groove. Pirate MCs always had an arsenal of signature catchphrases and mouth-music gimmicks, but with grime a vital element of ad-libbing improvisation got severely diminished. So excepting some 2002 tapes from grime's protozoan dawn, I've not got the same attachment or affection as I do for the classic rave sets.

Oddly, I've rarely found people who shared my obsession to anything like the same degree: a handful of collector-traders, and a guy called DJ Wrongspeed, whose fantastic Pirate Flava CD collaged the best bits from his now defunct Resonance FM series based around re-presenting pirate radio broadcasts. Often I've come across people who'll talk enthusiastically about recording the pirates "back in the day," only to reveal they'd long since taped over the cassettes, left them in the car to curdle in the heat, or just lost them. Aaaaargh!

But as a quick web search reveals, pirate tape fiends are out there lurking, and not just ones obsessed with the London-centric hardcore continuum: there's online archives and merchants for the original pirate radio of the 1960s (stations anchored in international waters or occupying abandoned offshore military forts) and sites dedicated to the land-based pirates of the Seventies and Eighties and to the Eighties hip hop mix-shows broadcast by London's pre-rave pirates. In terms of my particular addiction, you can find ardkore, jungle and UK garage sets archived at old skool sites, or offered for trade or sale; on various rave, drum'n'bass and dubstep message boards you'll come across individuals sharing huge caches of vintage transmissions.

The pirate penchant seems to be a minority taste within the larger niche market for DJ mix-tapes of the sort recorded through the sound board at the big commercial raves and then sold commercially through specialist record stores. People have been selling or swapping dupes of these sets for a dozen years at least (nostalgia for 1990-92 set in as early as 1996!). Today, an original Top Buzz mix-tape circa 1992, say, might fetch sixty pounds on Ebay. Strangely, from my point of view anyway, old skool fanatics generally prefer the slickly-mixed official releases to the vibe-rich but erratic pirate tapes; a lot of people just don't like MCs, it seems. But if, like me, you dig the brink-of-bedlam atmosphere of the pirate set, or are just curious to cop an in-the-raw feel of what it was like in those crazed days, seek out these online deposits of delirium:
A sizeable cache of 1989-97 shows, mostly from the London area.
Sets from two of my favourite stations of the 1992-93 "golden age"
Massive archive of broadcasts from Sheffield, Leeds, Bradford, York, Huddersfield, Hull and other North of England stations, 1992 - 2006
Huge selection of pirate tapes, albeit for sale rather than download.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Melody Maker, 13 April 1991

by Simon Reynolds

It’s almost impossible to have a natural, unforced response to The Doors' music, to hear it clearly through the encrustation of platitudes left by the 20 year criss-cross of mythologisation and debunking. In recent years, the only pop figure to suffer a similar fate of over-analysis is Prince. This probably explains why, in cooler-than-thou circles, it's hip to argue that both Purple Imp and Lizard King are absurdly overrated; nobody likes the taste that clichés leave in the mouth.

Unlike Prince or other over-explicated phenomenons (The Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, Presley), Jim Morrison gave the critics a headstart by providing his own, extremely lucid commentary on what he was trying to do. In The Doors' very first press release, Morrison declared, "I am interested in anything to do with revolt, disorder, chaos, and especially activity that seems to have no meaning". Morrison was remarkably conscious about his quest for unconsciousness, supremely self-possessed in his pursuit of self-loss. Perhaps that's why he drank so much – a crash course in how to ‘learn to forget’, an escape route from self-built cage of having it all worked out in advance.


Jim Morrison was the first pop deity to stage-manage his own self-mythologisation, to have a critical understanding of the mythical dimensions of rock 'n' roll. While that newly born species, the rock critic, was making its first stumbling comparisons between pop and Greek tragedy (Richard Meltzer), and its first paeans to the Dionysian madness of pop (Nik Cohn, Lester Bangs), Morrison was already articulating all that in his songs, in his performance, in his life. He was the prototype of the critically-minded rock deviant (Iggy Pop, Nick Cave, Perry Farrell, et al).

Morrison had a voracious appetite for what Meltzer calls "edge substances" (LSD, peyote, amyl nitrate, dope, alcohol). But more important were the cultural edge substances: Artaud's Theatre Of Cruelty; Blake's "doors of perception"; Celine's "journey to the end of the night"; Rimbaud's "sacred disorder of the mind"; Baudelaire's "perpetual drunkenness". From these Romantic and decadent influences Morrison derived the idea of the artist as a "broker in madness", an explorer of the frontier territories of the human condition.

But the most lethal intoxicant that Jim Morrison ever imbibed was the febrile writings of poet-philosopher Friedrich Nietzche. In his memoir Riders On The Storm, Doors drummer John Densmore goes so far as to say "Nietzche killed Morrison". Nietzche's Birth Of Tragedy has been described as "a philosophical road map to The Doors"; from it, Morrison drew the opposition between Apollonian art versus Dionysian art. Apollonian art promotes contemplation, calms the soul and ultimately serves social stability. Dionysian art, named after the god of drunkenness, incites pagan delirium, derangement of the senses, and the volcanic eruption within man of the untamed forces of Nature.

For Morrison, Dionysian music meant pre-castration Presley, the Stones, the blues. Apollonian pop? Well, he died before he could suffer the socially conscientious pop of The Style Council or Sting. But there was a distinctly Apollonian tenor to the counter culture: a longing to return to the garden of paradise, to a lost tranquility and order. As a Dionysian, Morrison believed that nature wasn't benign but the enemy without and within – a wilderness that was both threatening and alluring, offering an "eclipse of the self". As Densmore puts it: "Jim's message was endarkenment", not the enlightenment sought by the Love Generation. The Doors lay somewhere between the black leather nihilism of the Velvet Underground and the kaleidoscopic bliss-out of West Coast psychedelia. It was fitting that their base was Los Angeles, the city whose vibe lay somewhere between San Francisco (idyllic, temperate, perpetual spring) and New York (vibrant, uptempo, nerve-edged). L.A. is as divorced from nature as New York, but less characterful, more phantasmic: city-as-wilderness, whose endless freeways offered a soulless version of the Beatnik dream of travelling but never arriving.

"Our music is like someone not quite at home," Morrison said. The Doors' version of psychedelic experience was one of the estrangement and disorientation (‘Strange Days’), not blissful communion with the cosmos. The Doors' songs did not sound trippy so much as uncanny. The root meaning of ‘uncanny’ is a feeling of not being at home in the world. Freud used "the uncanny" to refer to when an object or person seems to have an abnormal, ominous aura (literally, a shadow cast by the unconscious). Morrison actively sought out this feeling of disorientation, driven by Baudelaire's ‘Great Malady’ ("horror of one's own home"). As with most rebels, he equated domesticity with domestication, and thus castration. Morrison owned nothing and lived nowhere; he lived like a bum and by all accounts stank like one too.


Morrsion took the phallic model of of rebellion (transgression, penetration into the unknown) to the limit. But the ultimate outcome of that stance (the refusal to accept and affirm limits) ultimately leads nowhere. As Albert Goldman put it: "The flipside of breakthrough is estrangement. Once you've broken away, it's pretty bleak out there. The rebel cuts himself off." Morrison himself expressed regrets that The Doors had never done "a song that's a pure expression of pure unbounded joy... like the coming of spring, or a celebration of existence – a feeling of being totally at home." Instead, he stuck with the ‘dark side’. But as Densmore says: "Look where darkness gets ya!" – the gloom of the tomb.

The Oedipal psychodrama of ‘The End’ still divides opinion, but whether you reckon it an epic or embarrassingly contrived method melodrama, it takes us to the core of Morrison's rebellion. "Kill the father, f*** the mother" was Morrison's catechism. Basically it meant: reject all lawgivers (from the conscience to the State right up to God), accept no limits to desire. But according to Freud, it's the Oedipal complex that makes us human; if you do not go through the Oedipal trauma ie abandon the infant's delusions of omnipotence, you become psychotic. What the edge substances offered Morrison (the extremist art or deranging intoxicants that he indulged in) was a temporary trip into psychosis. And this connected with his ideas about the rock idol as shaman. "Shamans," said Morrison, "are professional hysterics, chosen precisely for their psychotic leaning... heroes who live for us and whom we punish."


Whether he genuinely had such a psychotic leaning, or merely aspired to it, Morrison's behaviour was an amalgam of asshole and visionary. His press officer, Danny Fields, described him as an "adorable monster." His lust to transcend the human condition necessarily meant that he also left behind such prosaic human decencies as punctuality, hygiene, consideration, moderation-in-all-things, and eventually bladder control. All these were the casualties of Morrison's drive to be a poet, rather than simply produce poems.

As for the status-as-poetry of his work, the jury's still out. Some reckon the Doors were best as a pop band – concise, punchy, sexy (‘Hello I Love You’, ‘Light My Fire’). I personally favour the more outrageously pretentious and over-reaching stuff: ‘The Soft Parade’ (nine minutes long, five different sections, intentionally hilarious lyrics like "cobra on my left, leopard on my right") or ‘The Celebration Of The Lizard’ (17-minute song-cycle of mystico-Freudian tosh that still prickles my flesh as it did when I was an impressionable 16-year-old). I can even find some merit in An American Prayer, the poetry album released posthumously, against Jimbo's wishes, with backing supplied by the surviving Doors; an album that is generally regarded as either a calamitous exposure of the singer's poetic pretensions, or as a rape of the poet's original vision.


Which brings us round to the matter of the current necrophiliac frenzy surrounding the dead Door: what would he have make of it? Yet more of the ghoulish voyeurism that drove him in later years to abuse his audiences and test their passivity to the limit? Vicarious living through someone else's exploits is the name of the game in pop; filtered through the lens of nostalgia, the prospect of real liberation seems remoter than ever. But who knows? Nietzche wrote that the effect of great music should be that "the future digs like a spur into the flesh of every present". Despite all the overkill of the present resurrection, maybe something of Jim Morrison's impossible dreams will abide unscathed and spur us to seize the time, not "waste the dawn".

(NB writing this now I would... A/ not sit on the fence quite as much B/ mention the music and the other members of The Doors at least once. Maybe thrice!

so bit more like the review below... but even that could testify a bit more than it does... )

THE DOORS, Perception (40th Anniversary Box)
Blender, 2006 [director's cut]

by Simon Reynolds

The Doors are the perfect band for when you’re seventeen, a time when you’re waking up to life’s possibilities, the future’s a wide-open frontier, and ten thousand volts of libido pulse through your flesh. In that highly impressionable and lusty state, a Doors classic like “The End”, with its Oedipal psychodrama and entrancing guitar-as-sitar aura of faux-Oriental mystery, sounds like the most profound and intense thing you’ll ever hear. Factor in the attractive shape of Jim Morrison’s life arc, its mythic surge through reckless hedonism to early death ensuring no embarrassingly twilight-of-the-idol comebacks or je-regrette-everything VH1 confessionals, and it’s easy to see why The Doors endure as the ultimate band for clever teenagers craving music that rocks hard but has some book-learnin’ under its belt.

Yet there are potent arguments in favour of the proposition that nobody much older than seventeen should really have an ounce of time for the man or his band. Wasn’t Morrison a real pig of a human being, a (literally) stinking drunk egomaniac who rampaged over most everybody he had any dealings with? Aren’t his poet-as-prophet pretensions insufferably clunky and self-aggrandising? When he goes into “erotic politician”/ counterculture-revolutionary mode (“Five To One”, “The Unknown Soldier”) doesn’t your skin just crawl off your bones and leave the room in embarrassment? Finally, the music itself--most of it’s kinda dated and overblown, surely? All those epic song-suites like “Celebration of the Lizard”, or worse, the dreary bleary blooze of “Backdoor Man” and “Maggie McGill”?

Yet Morrison is hardly short for company when it comes to rock’n’roll assholes who overdid the liquor, while his psychedelic doggerel is really no more cringe-worthy than John Lennon in LSD mode. People always forget Jimbo’s sense of humor, manifested in his surreal ad-libs-- “cobra to my left, leopard to my right” in “The Soft Parade”--and the sheer zest with which he threw himself into his shaman-as-buffoon persona. As for the music--most it still sounds pretty darn glorious.

It remains an unusual sound, not just because of the lead-instrument prominence of Ray Manzarek’s ornate keyboards but because of the way The Doors combined driving rhythm-and-blues with a cinematic clarity, thanks to spacious, glistening arrangements and production (more vivid than ever in this fabulously remastered incarnation). Robbie Krieger is an under-rated guitarist, his solos elegantly restrained, piercingly poignant, and mercifully succinct, while John Densmore’s drumming is deft enough to make a waltz rhythm swing on “Shaman’s Blues.”

The meat of the sound is hard-funking blues, but the Doors salted in all kinds of unlikely flavours: flamenco on “Spanish Caravan”, musique concrete on “Horse Latitudes”, Weimar-era cabaret with their cover of Brecht & Weill’’s “Alabama Song”, cocktail jazz with “Riders on the Storm”. They even bizarrely anticipate disco with one segment of the audacious song-suite “The Soft Parade”

Perception contains all six studio albums the Doors recorded before Morrison’s death, bolstered with the inevitable out-takes (a highlight of which is the demo prototype of “Celebration of the Lizard”) and partnered with DVDs of performance footage. You can retrace the band’s journey from the bold entrance of The Doors (their best album, if suffering slightly from over-exposure) through Strange Days (their darkest and most psychedelic album), onto Waiting For The Sun (their most confused and least satisfying), The Soft Parade (their funniest and most under-rated) and the alleged return-to-bluesy form of Morrison Hotel (their dreariest and most over-rated, while still containing plenty of gems) before winding up with LA Woman (their most accomplished and poignant). The latter’s title track, a freeway-rolling travelogue across Los Angeles with Morrison imagining their home city as a sad-eyed woman, is a last gasp of ragged glory that--and this is a rare example of the benefits of knowing your rock history--sounds all the more grand and moving because the singer wouldn’t be much longer for this world.

Morrison’s version of “the blues” owed as much to Frank Sinatra as Muddy Waters, and his sonorous majesty of tone and commanding cadences made him one of rock’s true originals as a vocalist. One measure of this eminence is how so many of the legion of Jim-itators are rock greats in their own right. Iggy Pop converted Morrison into the pure sexless monomania of punk rock, while Patti Smith adapted his persona to become the world’s first female rocker-as-shaman. Joy Division’s Ian Curtis translated the baritone-booming doomy side of The Doors into Goth, while Echo & The Bunnymen and Simple Minds conversely picked up on the music’s panoramic grandeur and wonderlust. And Jane’s Addiction’s Perry Farrell updated Morrison’s excess-as-the-road-to-the-palace-of-wisdom shtick.

And is there any wisdom to be found at the end of that highway, or along the way? This is a more pinched era than the Sixties, its sense of adventure and entitlement often seeming impossibly remote. In hindsight, the freedom-chasing can look more like irresponsibility, the lust for “experience” weirdly close to a sort of spiritual greed. Yet in an era when seventeen year olds are confronted by a resurgent Puritanism that seeks to roll back the gains of the Sixties, forces of anti-life looking to constrain the scope for pleasure and adventure, there’s a certain imperishable truth and urgency to Morrison’s warning that “no eternal reward will forgive us now for wasting the dawn”. In a strange way, he was a true American patriot, his spirit as large as the land itself.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Melody Maker, 26TH March 1988

by Simon Reynolds

Salt N' Pepa are on their way up. They're poised on the cusp between cult and mega. They come from a subculture characterised by an unusual (even by pop's standards) swiftness of turnover, rapid obsolescence, where the backrop to the boasts of uniqueness and omnipotence is the reality of anonymity and obscurity to which most rappers return after a brief spell of celebrity.

So Salt 'N' Pepa are determined that they are here to stay. They're working now on turning the initial furore of their arrival into a managed, planned career with the emphasis on longevity as much as impact. Their new LP is called Career Girls.

"You can never be complacent in this business. You have to build on any success to make it last. So on our new LP we're gonna have something for everybody – some rock 'n' roll, some radio pop, some hardcore rap for the street crowd. Something that appeals to every market, so that you don't get pigeonholed as the one thing that appeals to only one kind of person."

Eclecticism as maximum market penetration, straddling radio formats, diversifying your assets. Salt 'N' Pepa have been given sound advice.

But this isn't the story of co-option, of street energy being tamed and exploited by the industry. At every level of hip hop, from the precinct hoodlum, through the cottage industry small labels, right on up to the corporate empires of Def Jam and Cold Chillin', rappers are on the make, eyes on the main chance, looking to be promoted to the next tier of capitalism.

These days, even at the earliest, most amateur, semi-spontaneous level of activity, rappers have the rough details of their ascent worked out in advance. They know the rungs, the pitfalls. They're righteous about gettin' paid. To me, a socialist of sorts, hip hop is a political revelation: its pathological individualism exposes the psychosis at the heart of our free market system, capitalism's war of all against all.

"We always wanted to be in showbiz, but never thought it would really happen. So although it was kind of an accident, we weren't overwhelmed, we'd thought about it, and had prepared for it, in a way. And we know about the work you have to put into sustaining it. You're gonna be hearing about Salt 'N' Pepa for a long long time."

This is America, of course, the land where positive thinking and "self-realisation" seep from every pore of the media, where getting on in the world and getting on with people are both seen as boiling down to the same life skill: selling yourself to others.

Hip hop is a Black subculture, for sure, but it's also an American one – a fact the full significance of which still hasn't percolated through to some quarters here. Hip hop swallows the American caboodle of initiative, ambition, enterprise, "anyone can make it if they work hard", whole.

So Run DMC publicly announce their support for Joey Brown, the notorious black high school principal for New Jersey, whose "talk tough" policy towards pupils has caused much controversy in the States, because of its emphasis on discipline, rectitude, not to mention Brown's bent for patrolling the playground with a loudhailer in one hand and a baseball bat in the other.

And that closeknit family The Skinny Boys namecheck Bill Cosby as a major role model – Cosby the patrician, whose increasingly moralistic show always sees the parents putting their errant kids back on the rails of life with an appropriate homily and a firm hand, Cosby the massive shareholder who is believed to have engineered the dismissal of liberal David Puttnam from his influential Hollywood job.

Like Run DMC, Salt 'N' Pepa are uncomfortably poised between the monomaniac assertion ("here I am, I am Somebody") of the subculture they come from, and the vague feelings of responsibility (to be a "positive role model") engendered by massive success. Like Run DMC, like Whodini, Salt 'N' Pepa, I'm sure, will shift from the tyranny of their local struggles towards something more regal, magnanimous, publicly concerned. The apoplexy of 'It's Alright', with its dub-cavern of spectral scratch and its visionary cruelty ("burn you and leave your ashes smokin"'), the exuberant vindictiveness of 'I'll Take Your Man', the predatorial 'I Desire'...all this disproportion is already being evened out to fit the pop format. But there's still pleasure. 'Push It', the new single and a Top 20 smash in the States, abandons the grit of sampled R&B for the hygiene and precision of electro, its robotic lubriciousness strangely reminiscent of Devo.

On the B side, 'I'm Down' is an insanely itchy piece of digital raunch. But a lot of the uncouthness has gone, as the big time beckons, perhaps ceded to a new Hurby Azor creation, Antoinette, who raps with the meanest, cold-hearted voice I think I've heard in rap – like she has vinegar for blood.

Some people read Salt 'N' Pepa as a proto-feminist upsurge in the phallocentric world of hip hop. But to me, there was always too much competitiveness going down for Salt 'N' Pepa to fit comfortably into the scheme of sisterhood and mutual support against the phallocrats.

Salt 'N' Pepa fit more into the old soul tradition of female sass, of women being demanding within the terms of conventional gender roles: like Shirley Murdock duetting with Roger Troutman, (or Carla Thomas with Otis Redding, for that matter), where the women lambasts the man for dereliction of his obligations. The fundamental ideals of sexual apartheid aren't tampered with.

"What do I think are the ideal qualities in a man? He's got to be...sensitive...but masculine, y'know. Rugged. Lots of money. Well, not so much the money, as he's got to have the drive to make money. I love money, ha ha ha! But looks come second to personality every time.

"The War Of The Sexes? Yeah, well, it's always gonna be like that. Always has been, always will be."

Salt 'N' Pepa deal me a bunch of glibly-delivered stock answers this afternoon, the freshness and charm having become rather starched thanks to the massive itinerary of TV appearances and magazine interviews they've had to undertake as 'Push It' takes off. Are their stage/vinyl characters anything like the real people (Cheryl James and Sandra Denton) behind Salt 'N' Pepa?

"Oh no, it's a character. I ain't like that. On stage I'm wild, I spin on my knees, I'm rude, I order people about. In person we're much more considerate. But people like the way we are onstage, they want to be controlled, cos then they know you're giving your all, really putting out onstage."

It's a spectacle of control, of course, as with Janet Jackson, where the spectacle of self-determination is masterminded by various backroom writers and sonic architects. Salt 'N' Pepa now write a bigger share of their own material, choreography, routines, but it was Hurby Azor who more or less created the concept of Salt 'N' Pepa, having first divined a potential in the raw material of their boisterousness.

It was Hurby who gave them a unique sound, one that has had a major influence on last year's shift in rap away from the bludgeoning dead end of total blackout and rhythmic seizure that seemed the logical destination for hip hop, towards a more sensual, loose-limbed sound.

Using first a technique called "poublaison" (a kind of tape loop) [2011 NOTE:ACTUALLY PUBLISON, A MACHINE THAT COMBINES SAMPLING AND EFFECTS) and now straightforward sampling with an Akai 900, Azar takes raw material (a Meters guitar lick, an ancient R&B drum sound, a string of call-and-response) and assembles a kind of Frankenstein dance monster out of funk-limbs that don't belong together. Check out the Hurby's Machine sampler of his creations. The different grooves almost, but don't quite fit – hence the friction, the rub, that makes the music so sensual, in comparison with the sado-masochistic jackhammer rhythms of previous hip hop.

Another effect is more eerie, the this-ness and then-ness of specific studio vibes, placed in uncanny adjacence with one another. There's a kind of crooked grooviness about the sound, something zombie: music that appears to be living and breathing, the result of the human touch, but is in fact only a simulacrum of life, "hyped up by Hurby".

AUTHOR'S NOTE: a disastrous interview this, stilted in itself on account of culture gap, but then as i was doing it i was aware of a strange whining electronic noise, only to discover at the conclusion of the interview that the tape recorder had malfunctioned and not a word had been recorded In a panic I asked the group if i could do the interview again - to which Salt replied, acidly, "Those questions?". So I bolted the building and rushed across the street to the nearest fast food joint and sat down scribbling whatever dregs I could dredge up from my short-term memory of the interview. Hence the rather low ratio of band quotes to SR pontification in this piece.

Friday, April 22, 2011

(Paw Tracks)
director's cut, The Wire, April 2011

By Simon Reynolds

The dominant sound on Panda Bear records is Noah Lennox's voice. Or I should say, voices: his production hallmark is massing his vocal so that it sounds choral. Heavy reverb intensifies the churchy aura. As does Lennox's pure-hearted tone, an alloy of yearning, devotion, and rejoicing shaped by his high school participation in a chamber choir. This self-singalong effect reminds me of three things:

* The artist Anthony Goicolea, who uses trick photography to create tableaus of boarding school boys--anywhere from two to a dozen--who all have the same face: the adult Goicolea's. The effect ranges from quirkily surreal to grotesque and disturbing.

* "Sanctus", the choral song that recurs throughout if... (Lindsay Anderson's 1968 film about a boys-only boarding school) and which comes from Missa Luba, an Africanised version of the Latin mass performed by a choir of Congolese children. Evoking the clear-eyed idealism of youth, "Sanctus"'s effect in if.. is uplifting yet ominous: it prefigures the bloody insurrection against the teachers and parents that climaxes the film.

A peculiar tradition at my own all-boys public school, a ritual that wasn't formalized but seemingly spontaneously generated itself annually. During assembly on the last day of the school year, the boys sang the hymns with unusual vigour and volume (as opposed to the usual mouthing- the- words desultoriness). Every year, the masters on the podium looked stunned and cowed by this demonstration of insubordinate joy: school's out for summer.

At the heart of Panda Bear's music, and Animal Collective's too, is the cult of boyhood as the supreme state of being. The title Tomboy seems to shift from that slightly, but not really: the tomboy--that adorable tyke who likes rough-and-tumble-- is androgynous in the exact same way that prepubescent boys, with their high voices and sensitivity, often are. What PB/AC celebrate and hark back to is the clarity, purity, and simplicity of the world seen through the eyes of those yet to undergo the Fall into sexuality.

I'm a sucker for the whole psychedelic "younger than yesterday"/"he not busy being born"/"goin' back" mythos, despite being in my late forties and a parent with ample experience of actual childhood (oh they can be so sweet and innocent, but also, alas, totally innocent of basic human decency). Person Pitch--the previous Panda album, from 2007--drips with this kind of beatific naïvety and it's one of my absolute favorites from the last decade. And I'm not short of company: it would hard to over-state how feverishly anticipated Tomboy is in certain quarters. If there was any doubt that Lennox has emerged as the key figure in Animal Collective, the group's "soul" even, you need only the compare the response to Person Pitch and the underwhelmed reception of solo efforts by the group's ostensible lead singer/leader Avey Tare. In many ways Person Pitch was the flawless consummation of everything that Animal Collective have striven for and only fitfully achieved across their sprawling discography: an approachable avant-rock that marries euphony and experiment. Post-rock, with tunes.

Lennox has actually described Tomboy as more of a "guitar rock" record, based around "simplistic rhythms". But it doesn't really feel like a departure from Person Pitch's loops-and-samples. Some songs feature frantically strummed guitar parts, but they're fed through a Korg, and overall the way this music is organized and propels itself forward feels closer to German minimal tech-house than to rock'n'roll. As for the top line melodies and mood-textures, the Beach Boys are overwhelming present. It's a revealing influence, given their cult of boyish buoyancy of spirit and Brian Wilson's conception of Smile as a "teenage symphony to God". "Surfer's Hymn" is a blatant nod to the Boys and further oceanic allusions come with "Last Night At The Jetty" and the nautical-sounding "Slow Motion", whose swaying rhythm lies somewhere between sea shanty and Basic Channel. "Jetty" is like a gaseous and Gas-y postmillenial take on the Everly Bros, while "Alsation Darn" reminds me a teensy bit of, yuk, "Bridge Over Troubled Water". Panda's version of the latter's sentiment is the album-opening pledge "You Can Count On Me." Then there's "Friendship Bracelet", named after the American teenage custom of exchanging handmade tokens of undying amity.

As with the Wilsonian sonic universe, the presiding spirits of Panda Bear music are Agape and Apollo, brotherly love and the sun god. (The last song, "Benfica" is the Portuguese word for "light" and also Lisbon's soccer team). And like with the Beach Boys, there's not a hint of Eros or the Dionysian in this music, just shining eyes and open hearts. Listening, at times you might think of scouts gathered around a camp fire. There are only a couple of welcome breaks amid all this sweetness and light. Over an extended ache of organ, "Drone" unfurls long suspended canopies of voice that gradually twist in tone. Better still is "Scheherezade", a murky chamber where reverb for once on this album sounds eerie rather than idyllic. Tentative piano chords and sourceless groans of bass-frequency undergird Lennox's huge billowing voice; tinkling cascades of glass snowflakes spiral down intermittently. The song sounds pregnant with fathomless mystery.

It's an odd one, Tomboy: impressive on the first few listens, it grows irritating with repeat play. The analogy that springs to mind is chocolate gateau: lovely on the first day, sickening if you then have eat it every day for the rest of the week. Still, that doesn't quite explain why the exact same mood and techniques that worked sublimely for me on Person Pitch have come to seem oppressive and cloying. Perhaps it comes from my personal feeling that Brian Wilson is one of the most over-rated pop auteurs of the last half-century, his work the place where albino meets castrato. Perhaps it's because it's hard to get involved with these songs because the chorus-of-one vocals and reverb-blurriness render the lyrics virtually indecipherable. Perhaps, finally, it comes from the feeling that the whole "wordliness must keep apart from me", child-man thing has become a kind of spiritual cul-de-sac for Lennox, now in his early thirties (although he looks fourteen in his photos) and a parent with two young daughters. In the past decade nobody has sung "songs of innocence" better than Noah. Now we need to hear Lennox's "songs of experience".


via mark richardson's tumblr

according to Anonymous, Lennox,when talking about Tomboy a year or so before it came out, "described Bach as one of his influences for that album" and talked about how his "use of reverb" was " a reflection of high vaulted ceilings and that church-like atmosphere both from his own life and some of the architecture of Lisbon"

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Legendary Pink Box
Melody Maker, 1991

By Simon Reynolds

The Legendary Pink Dots were once briefly championed by comrades Stubbs and Oldfield, as "pretentious psychedelia" (a compliment) and "baroque and outlandish... the first whale among 1987' pop minnows". That was about as close as The Legendary Pink Dots got to being known over here, and they dipped back into obscurity. (In Europe, they're a cult band, and have spent most of the decade in exile in Amsterdam.)

The reason isn't hard to fathom. Even now, with late Sixties gross-out thoroughly rehabilitated (to the point of orthodoxy) the LPD's orbit of reference points is at the furthest fringe of the "acceptable". LPD's temerity has been to: a) cite not just Pink Floyd but prog rockers Amon Duul, Mafma and Soft Machine as their influences; b) attempt a rehabilitation of the concept album, compose 21 minute pieces (like "premonition 13", included here). British post-punk pigheadness can't
tolerate such "indulgence", oh no -- not when the pruned concision and blunt urgency of the likes of Snuff and Mega City Four is so much more "topical".

"The Legendary Pink Box" is a triple-disc set of rare and unreleased stuff (or so I presume: it comes with no information). And it's as far-fetched and bound-less
...I could have hoped for. The overall impression is of the fey whimsy of Syd Barrett enveloped in the indiscriminate eclecticism of Faust... (everything can be
music). Nursery rhyme vocals sit primly amid gargoyle-grotesque sound-shapes like dank leakage from the unconscious. Their sound is admirably overcrowded with influences: electronics, chamber music, sampling,punkadelia, dub, Skinny Puppy industrial, muzak, the micro-tonality of composers like Ligeti and Stickhausen, early DAF, and more, are all in there. But the effect is never of clotted versatility or ostentatious virtuosity, but rather of expanse, of deranging space.

Edward ka-Spel's lyrcs suggest melancholia, withdrawl, delirium (one song is called "Thursday Night Fever"). More often they're a liquefaction of language: like
Wire, all assonance, alliteration, dotty thymes andpurple puns. A lexical labyrinth. Psychedelia as being lost in the derelict mansion of your own mind.
Ignore your better judgment, and investigate.

Melody Maker, 1991?

by Simon Reynolds

In an Indian restaurant in west Berlin, The Legendary Pink Dots celebrate another
successful date on their latest tour of Europe. On the Continent, The Legendary Pink Dots play to rapturous crowds ranging from healthy-sized to huge. In the past decade, they've released 11 albums through Play it Again Sam, and established themselves as a cult band in Europe and North America.

But, in their native Britain, The Legendary Pink Dots remain neglected. Unjustly, maybe, but not without reason. The Dots' music--a gaudy and avant-garde music-- is too rich a diet to be stomached by the anorexic sensibilites of the British
"alternative" scene. Even the most unleashed exponents of far-out noise overload-- Spacemen 3, Loop- remain hidebound by a hidden agenda of sonic strictures.

It's this climate (where bands still adhere to the post-punk edict that "less is more", kowtow to a knee-jerk dread of the word hippy) that originally drove The Legendary Pink Dots into exile in Amsterdam some five years ago. Despite all the
loosening up of the past three years, the Brits flinch from the sheer expanse of the Pink Dots and their ilk.

Lead Dot, Edward Ka-Spel neglects his chicken tikka to expound upon the whys and wherefores of his band. His phrase for the Legendary Pink DOts's sound-and-vision is the "terminal kaleidoscope".

"If you look at history, the one thing that's certian is that events are accelerating. Things are changing faster and faster, like a ball rolling down a mountain. Our idea is that if things continue to accelerate at this rate, eventually we'll reach overload, cataclysm. We want to provide the relevant soundtrack to this process. Our sound is like this immense cocktail, saturated with all these elements of past music jumbled up with the absolutely modern, like sampling and synthetics.

"But we aren't pessimistic about this impending cataclysm. We belive that we're living through the most significant time in the history of the planet, and we should cherish the things we see and feel in these most exciting times. That's why our
catchphrase is "Sing while you may!" And that's why our new album's called "The Crushed Velvet Apocalypse". Apocalypse can mean simply change. Its like the death card in the Tarot: it doesn't mean death, it means drastic change.

"I don't know if these changes are gonna be for the good or the bad. I don't pretend to be any kind of seer or visionary. I just know that all kinds of philosophies,like Nostradamus, are pointing to the 30 years up to the year 2000 as being a time of great transition. Some point towards a Golden Age after it.

"But there's beauty even in the darkest things. The reason why sunsets are so beautiful these days is because of all the pollution. If you look at a river
that's been chocked with oil, it "is" beautiful. It's the strange twist in the tale. And I try to take all these things that are happening today, and take them to
their ultimate. I don't believe in the annihilation of mankind, but I do believe in mutation."

Through 10 years, 11 albums and a continually fluctuating line-up, the creative core of the Pink Dots has remained Ka-Spel and Phil Knight. The pair found each other in the mid-Seventies, through a shared love of Krautrock groups like Can and Faust. If the Pink Dots are "psychedelia" then it's more in terms of this European tradition of boundary-dissolving expansionism,than the Barrett/Ayers school of Anglo whimsy or American wig-out.

"In Britain, psychedelia is totally linked with nostalgia, and it shouldn't be. Psychedelia's about exploration,discovering new colours. It is not about looking back 20 years. That's as irrelevant as cabaret bands playing Elvis covers. Psychedelis's always got to go "further".

"I never like to talk of influences, cos they tend to be subliminal rather than overt. But to be honest, those German groups are what I still listen to the most,
because they just went so "far". So few bands go that far. A band like Nurse With Wound, who I really like, maybe go that far out. But I can't think of too many
modern bands that try something like that, that actually deranges.

"The beauty of those groups is that Can sounded nothing like Faust, who sounded nothing like Amon Duul, who sounded nothing like Ashra Temple... THe diversity
really puts you in all these different "worlds". It's something else! And that's why, with our music, I can't really say where it's going to go next, because there
are no boundaries. The one thing I can assure you is that it will never be rock'n'roll. I can't stand rock'n'roll.I'm allergic to it.

"If you take the German bands as having no traditional roots in rock'n'roll or R&B, as having roots more in Stockhausen than in Chuck Berry, than we follow on from
that, and are even more free-floating and rootless. I listen to stuff like Stockhausen, Penderecki, Xenakis, Ligeti, Pierre Henry, all that "avant-garde" stuff. But not from an intellectual point of view, but just to bathe in all the sounds and noises. It's totally exciting.

"We always dedicate albums to deviants, and I tend to like deviant music. Anyone who's a character, does something completely wilful and doesn't give a damn about
what other people think. There are a lot of people out there who do that, but they tend to get buried under the carpet."

Edward Ka-Spel is obsessive. He lives for music: in the first year of squatting in Amsterdam he went without food in order to plough all his slim resources into the Dots,and even his girlfriend has difficulty preventing him from spending his food money on obscure albums of experimental music. And Ka-Spel attracts obsessives. Fanzine writers pen lengthy treatises interpreting the densely woven tapestry of his lyrics (whose themes criss-cross from album to album to form an ongoing myth-world). Others engage with the music in a rather more negative fashion.

"There's a lot of humour in the music, but a lot of people home in on the disturbing side. It's got really disturbing on this tour. People have come to hate me. A guy in Oslo kept trying to assault me. I got a letter from another guy who basically blamed me for all his problems. He'd bought all the records, and he was basically accusing me of sending him over the edge."

A lot of Pink Dot's music does deal with madness and schizophrenia. One album, "Asylum"--so titled because it's "a place to escape to, and a place to escape from", plays with the idea of madness as a refuge from an intolerable world. Ka-Spel himself went through a period of psychiatric treatment as a child.

"I was a kind of guinea pig. They discovered that I had an IQ of 160 when I was three. This made me interesting to the people at Great Ormond Street hospital. They made me draw all these pictures. I used to have horrendous nightmares up
till I was 10. It caused a certain isolation for me as a child. It was particularly difficult cos I grew up in East London, which is not the best place to be when your're different."

Does it annoy you that Britain is one of the few places to be indifferent to the Legendary Dots?

"It hurts a lot. More than any coast-to-coast American tours, or playing to huge crowds in Pairs-- both of which we've done--what I'd really like to do is play in England,and prove something. It's like I've always had a bad deal in England. Right through my school years I had a really hard time. Then I started doing what I really wanted and believed in, and once again England gave me the cold shoulder. We do have a real drive to go back there, and say "See what you've been missing!"

The Loft, Berlin
Melody Maker, 1991?

by Simon Reynolds

The Legendary Pink Dots have dwelt in self-imposed exile in Holland for the past six years. In Europe, they're a cult, able to make a living through frequent touring
and prodigious vinyl output. In Britain, they remain almost completely unknown, their musical premises too sprawling for the narrow sights of the British "alternative" scene. The LPD are committed to English and European psychedelia as an ongoing realm of sonic expansionism, whereas current British acid rock revisionism
conceives of psychedelia as; A) primarily American; B) wholly guitar-based; and C) firmly fixed in a long-lost glorious past. Add to this singer Edward Ka-Spel's
art-rock influenced sense of shamanic theater, and his penchant for fabulism, and you have a near insurmountable set of reasons why the British won't be clasping the Dots to their collective bosom in the immediate future.

Onstage, Ka-Spel has something of the hunched, obsessive air of a 19th century inventor. In Europe, he is regarded by many as a seer, and not without reason. The title of the latest, brilliant Dots LP "The Crushed Velvet Apocalypse" evokes his vision that the end of the world is gonna be pretty darn colourful and we're fortunate to be living through it. Several LPD songs are garishly vivid sound-
pictures of a future world rendered unnaturally beautiful by pollution, Ka-Spel's lyrics teeming with images of "menstrual lakes/Rainbow rivers and crippled dandelions".Tracks like "Hellsville" and "Helloween" lie somewhere between Skinny Puppy and Nick Cave of "Mutiny In Heaven" and "Saint Huck".

The legendary Pink Dots are "maximalists", on a quest for new colours. Barrett is often cited, but a more relevant reference point is Krautrock expansionism of Can and Faust. The LPS use sampling to update/facilitate those groups techniques (incorporation of found or "real" sound, noise-mutation, etc.). At times their music can be like an animated Bosch or Durer painting of Armageddon; elsewhere
(as with "Green Gang", which dares to employ sitar, tabla, treated woodwind instruments, and WINS), they create a gorgeously serene Taj Mahal of sound. The single,"Princess Coldheart", is Soft Cell meets Brothers Grimm; its B-side, "The Pleasure Palace", a circus of death, all greasepaint and grotesquerie.

German youth haul The Legendary Pink Dots on for four encores. Blighty's loss is Europe's gain. But homecoming dates are tentatively planned for late spring. Cast your blinkers aside, and investigate.

this reish is for Carl the mighty Impostume

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Wire, February 1992

by Simon Reynolds

"Maybe to relate to this album you need to have been whacked around by life a bit," says Lou Reed. "This record won't mean that much to an eight-year-old, except you can just luxuriate in the sound, it's so thick and defined and dimensional. But an eight-year-old won't have the faintest idea what I'm talking about. And I'm not trying to offend eight-year-olds," he adds, the faintest of smiles flickering across his impassive features. "Maybe there's a very sophisticated one out there somewhere."

Where New York railed against the here-and-now specifics of Manhattan's disintegrating social fabric, Magic And Loss is Lou Reed raging against the limits of existence, the absolutes of life and death; it's also a glowing tribute (literally glowing, since the playing is luminous) to two friends who died recently. One was Doc Pomus, a songwriter friend from Reed's pre-Velvet Underground days as a salaried songsmith. The other, "Rita", was "just a friend. Not a celebrity, put it that way."

New York was socially engaged and street-real: Magic And Loss is a spiritual document. ‘Power And Glory’, for instance, trembles with a palpable feeling of revelation: "I was captured by a larger moment/I was seized by divinity's heart breath — gorged like a lion of experience... I wanted all of it, not some of it". The song teems with mystical imagery of metamorphosis, rooted in the paradoxes of terminal illness ("I saw a great man turn into a little child") and of radiation therapy ("The same power that burned Hiroshima/Causing three legged babies and death /Shrunk to the size of a nickel/To help him regain his breath").

"I came to understand that the album was about transformation," explains Reed. "Alchemy. The purpose of alchemy wasn't to transform lead into gold, that was just one example of the process, to be used later to transform yourself. I call the album Magic And Loss because that experience can be taken two ways. That's why the song ‘Power And Glory’ occurs twice, in different forms. A whole different tempo, a whole different way of looking at the exact same thing. The way they faced illness and death was very inspirational. In the end, it was a magical experience. A positive experience. Positive to have known them, positive to have watched them go through this. When, to quote myself, 'you loved the life others throw away nightly'. I thought they were giants."

Magic And Loss says Reed, is "an extension of the Songs For Drella album which was an extension of New York —.the idea of a thematically whole album. Right now, I'm not interested in the idea of twelve or so disparate songs." Each song has a subtitle, "like a novel, at the head of each chapter, a little phrase explaining what it is".

The album conducts you methodically through each stage of terminal illness and bereavement. There's the morbid, unbidden reveries of ‘Dreamin’ ’, perhaps the most lovely song on the record, with its braid of wavering guitar-synth and tremulous, plangent, pure Velvets guitar. ‘Goodbye Mass’ vividly evokes the awkward discomfort of the funeral service, Reed bemoaning the disparity between its dour gravity and the feisty, irrepressible good humour of the dearly departed. "You, you would have made a joke/ Isn't this something you'd say/ Tommorrow I'm smoke".


"Both of them made jokes straight the way through," recollects Reed. "It's unbelievable. I had said there's this great widescreen colour TV I could get for you, and I'll hook up all the wiring for you. And they said, Lou, this is not the time for long-term investments. Joking. I think that's magnificent. I just think some people are giants. You may never hear of them, but they just have this thing. They're like the sun, they're just glowing all the time. They stay that way. When they get hurt, they don't suddenly turn into this other thing. It would be totally understandable. If I get a flu, I start whining!"

Then there's ‘Warrior King’, which documents the most confusing and ostensibly illogical symptom of mourning, a desire for bloody revenge that can't be slaked because it's intransitive.

"The character singing is very mad at the elements that have attacked and killed his friends. But there's no person to aim it at, with terminal illness. It's like, if you could take a physical, malleable form, I'd take you in an alley and do this, and this, and this. It's if I could, if I could... but with death, you can't. So it's that anger that causes the song afterwards, ‘Harry's Circumcision’, because you can't walk around with that anger in your heart. It causes these very negative thoughts, which is what ‘Harry's Circumcision’ is all about, taken to its natural conclusion (attempted suicide)." According to Lou's theory, you can't just stay in that mental state, you've got to go beyond that. Which is what happens on the album.

"The songs are in a particular order for a purpose, it's supposed to take you to a certain place. And that's a really positive state. This is not a negative, down album. I'm not the only person in the world who's experienced loss. Everybody has a brother or sister or father or friend somewhere that died and that means they can understand. You just have to have been alive for a little while to experience it. It's not a mystery. It's real life giving you a real hello, welcome to the club."
That "certain place" is reached on the final track, ‘Magic And Loss’, a spectral sleepwalk of mystic jazz-metal whose lyrics suggest reconciliation. It hints that Reed's even come to believe in some kind of afterlife: there's a door up ahead, not a wall.

"You can call it a spiritual awakening, or whatever you like. Things look a certain way, like you're driving directly into a wall. There's nothing you can do about it. But no, it's a door. You just didn't see it. And a door, obviously, can be opened. It depends how you look at things. The song ‘Magic And Loss’ I find very uplifting It's resolving the whole album. You don't wanna come to the end of that experience still feeling splintered. You have to reconcile yourself to it. But hopefully, it's a reconciliation with a lot of positive aspects to it. It's an inspiring thing, what I witnessed. I want to be as good as them. These were the people who were inspiring to me right the way through the last minute. It's really sad not being able to call Doc Pomus up right to this day, because he was like the sun. He was just one of those people that you feel good when you're around them. You could be feeling bad, and you visit them and they say two words and you feel good. But then, it would have been even worse not to have known him at all. That's part of the whole magic and loss deal."


Lofty speculations and spiritual quandaries withal, Lou Reed spends the bulk of his time grappling with the nitty-gritty technicalities of making records. It the truth be known, he's a bit of a muso. Way back in his decadent days, Reed could drive Lester Bangs up the wall by discoursing interminably about how George Benson invented a totally clean, totally pure amplifier. Even the unendurable din of Metal Machine Music was informed by audiophile obsessions. The interview has hardly begun before Reed launches into a diatribe about rock critics' cloth-eared ignorance about sound.

"It always amazes me — and this not meant to be offensive — how little you people hear, on a tonal level. I find the sound on the new album awe-inspiring. There is a radiance to it, an enormous tonal range. It's like a stereo image. It's very 3D-ish. You can actually walk around it. It has the sonic depth to match its subject matter. This time, I've got the tones I haven't quite been able to before. On the sleeve of New York I wrote about the equipment we used, and I was trying to let the people know there's a lot going into the choices that are there. It's not as spontaneous as it seems."

Reed explains, at considerable length, about the "incalculable hours" he and co-producer, second guitarist Mike Rathke, spent on research, refinement, and modification of equipment. He describes how the kind of tape you use, the pick-ups, even the wood in the guitar can all make a difference.* It's all very incongruous.

The reality of Lou Reed-as-technical-boffin jars discordantly with the image of Lou-Reed-as-icon-of-street- romanticism. In the post-punk scheme, technique and technology are generally deemed to be enemies of the gritty authenticity that's allegedly the heart of rock 'n' roll: Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, for all the arty input, are generally taken to represent the epitome of this raw expression. Because they tend to come from a Litcrit or humanities background, rock critics find the nuts-and-bolts side of music-making demystifying. But for Lou Reed, it's where the mystery is painstakingly constructed. It's a sort of science of magic.

"No one knows that better than me because I know how much magic disappears when the technical stuff is wrong. At the end of the whole process, when you listen to your finished CD, you realise that you've got a cassette from the very beginning that sounds 100 times better. So what happened? Why is it so cold sounding? There's no dimension. That guitar hurts my ears. Where's the bass? Why is it muddy? If you get into the why of it, it's fascinating. And it's a real thrill if you finally get it to sound right. The only way to learn is to make records. But most people aren't really interested, they think the magic is all over there, and the technical stuff is another matter, and if you have a good producer that's all taken care of. The writing and performance are one thing, but if the production and technical side aren't there... and I've got the records to prove it. A lot of my records, 'till I could get a handle on it, aren't even produced, except in the sense that I wouldn't let the producers do anything, rather than let them do it wrong. And the records are completely dry, 'cos I didn't know how it worked, but I knew they'd fuck it up so I wouldn't let 'em do anything. It takes a long time to learn, when you're making a record every couple of years. It's fascinating, but it's like this onion with all these skins, endless."


Far more congruent with Lou Reed's received image is the fact that Penguin are soon to publish Between Thought And Expression, a selection of lyrics that he felt could stand up on their own without music. It's strange that it took him so long to get between book covers, considering that back in 1979 he declared "my expectations are very high... to be the greatest writer that ever lived on God's earth. In other words I'm talking about Shakespeare, Dostoevsky..."

"That was just me shooting my mouth off, but it is a real dream. To do something that's not disposable, that could really hold its own for ever. It sounds kind of glib and pretentious, to say you want to be up there with Dostoievsky, but I would. I wanna create art that will live forever, whether it's on record or on the printed page. That's why I avoid slang, any expression that will date, like 'dig it' or 'freaked out'."

Despite his aversion to transient argot, Reed's lyrics exude a great sense of demotic, everyday speech, rather than the ornately poeticised. The same love of ‘conversational tone’, the faltering rhythm of thoughts taking shape as they're spoken, informed his interviews with novelist Hubert Selby (Last Exit To Brooklyn ), and Czechoslovakian playwright turned President, Vaclav Havel, both of which are included in Between Thought And Expression.

"I don't like it when the interview's so cleaned up that both interviewer and subject sound like the same person. I like to keep the real rhythm of the way the person talks. With Selby, hopefully from the interview I did with him, you can hear him think. The way he puts things together I found really fascinating. Hearing a writer think like that, you can see why he's a great writer."

The most interesting thing to emerge in the Havel encounter was the Velvet Underground's indirect effect on history. First there was a Czech avant-rock band called Plastic People Of The Universe who covered Velvet Underground songs, and then they got sent to prison, and then the campaign to get them released evolved into Charter 77, which in turn led to Czechoslovakia's ‘Velvet Revolution’. That's a coincidence (the "Velvet" means soft, bloodless) but a beautiful one, and it highlights the way a band like the Velvet Underground, by symbolising absolute possibility, can be ‘political’ without being politicised, can change things without being explicitly consciousness-raising. Most touching of all for Reed is the fact that the Charter 77 activists recited his lyrics to themselves as a source of spiritual fortitude.

"I have the handprinted book of my lyrics, in Czechoslovakian, that Havel gave me, and it's an astonishing thing. It meant so much to them. Music was a real expression to them of social change. We walked over this beautiful bridge in Prague and they told me that a few years ago you wouldn't have seen a guitarist on that bridge with kids singing. It was considered dangerous. Where people get together is where ideas are generated, and that's a problem for totalitarian governments. It's hard for us to even conceive of living under such constraints."

When he goes about his daily life, or looks in the mirror, does he feel mythic, an icon?

"I don't even relate to that. It doesn't even cross my mind. What I'm really interested in is stuff like analogue to digital converter shoot-outs. I don't even conceive of that other stuff at all. It's like, they must mean someone else. It doesn't compute with me, simply because I know how hard I have to work with the limitations that I have, just to get to where I am."

Nonetheless, Lou Reed is one of those artists that people of a certain generation tell the time by. Like Neil Young, Reed is one of the few figures from his era to survive with credibility intact and muse in working order. But Reed denies feeling any responsibility to the people who look to him for the next big statement. "It wouldn't even dawn on me," he shrugs. He also claims to be oblivious to the legions of copyist who have turned ‘Lou Reed’ into a genre.

"I always thought of it as a situation where some really obvious ideas were sitting there, and I happened to be one of the guys who happened to hit the dirt first. It's like, hey, look at that, there's a whole continent over there. It seemed really obvious. Then you start listening to Brecht or Weill, and you realise quite a few people have been running around there."


"I spend a lot of time researching. You could call it studying. I ask, Why does digital do that? What's the analog-to-digital conversion process? Are the filters better now? It goes back to the wood in the guitar, which pickups to use. Everything I have has been modified, tinkered with, to make it work for me." Reed and his co-producer, second guitarist Mike Rathke, spend "incalculable hours" in research and refinement. "I practically studied with some technical people who really helped me out. Because there's millions of choices out there and even if you had a zillion dollars and bought all these to try them, it’d take forever. So you really need someone knowledgeable and talented to guide you. Even down to the kind of tape you record on."

Reed takes similar pains when it comes to selecting compatible musicians, preferring to work with people he knows personally. He's quick to demolish the idea that tension heightens creativity, and is particularly scathing about what he calls "the Lou Reed/John Cale myth" (that the duo's prickly relationship is the font of their collective genius). "Things would be 1,000 times better without that tension." When you recall that he and Cale disagreed about such minutiae as the amount of time between tracks on Drella, it's easy to believe.

Reed's team on Magic and Loss is almost the same as for New York: Mike Rathke as second guitarist, Rob Wasserman on bass, with frequent Tom Waits and Elvis Costello accomplice Michael Blair replacing Fred Maher on drums. "We have the interaction of a real band. The music's based on ebb and flow. A song should give the impression of being a living thing. It's always going to be assembled; that's how recording works. But our stuff is about as live as we could get it and still satisfy my requirements for sound."

According to Rathke, the approach to Magic and Loss was, with New York, a fusion of vintage and state-of-the-art. "We try to blend the old with the new. Lou and I spend a lot of time on pre-production. It goes down to the kind of wood, strings, pick-ups, wirings, speaker cabinets you use. Neither vintage nor state-of-the-art does it all. If I was a painter, I'd want the colors to harmonize. And sounds are like colors in a way; they have to match."

With his perfectionism ("compromise makes me ill"), it's not surprising that Reed has only ever produced one other artist, Reuben Blades. "It's too much work. You'd have to love what they did, to spend that much time with their material. Plus I want things my way. I could imagine producing one song, maybe, and only if I got alone with the person. But I couldn't be brought along to produce a group – that's too many factors I couldn't control. I want as much control as possible."


Lou Reed is legendary for his antipathy to being interviewed. During our encounter, he had to cadge a couple of soothing cigarettes off me, even though he's quit smoking, because, he says, "I get nervous about interviews." He was even more uptight about being on the other side of the tape recorder.

"With Hubert Selby, I came in with typed questions, because I was sure I’d be nervewracked and I didn't want to forget anything. Same with Havel. The only reason I did it was that these were people I really wanted to meet, that I really admired, and here was a chance to meet them and ask them things that I was really interested in. I'm sure there are a few others I could think of, but it's just really hard work. I'd much rather go out for a drink with them. I found with someone like me it was really good to have notes, in order of asking, so that I didn't glaze out. And later kick myself 'cause I forgot to ask them the most important question. I had loads of spare batteries, and a microphone that I knew worked."