Tuesday, May 9, 2017

letter from NYC - outlook for '93: grim

LETTER FROM NYC: outlook for '93: grim
Melody Maker, December 1992

by Simon Reynolds

     Since it's that time of year when everyone's looking to the
future, let me weigh in with my two cents worth: not predictions, so
much as patterns for '93 in American rock.  This much is obvious:
the major labels are still fixated on that delusory figment, "the
next Nirvana".  Having signed most of Nirvana's grunge peers, and
scraped the bottom of that barrel, they're currently harvesting the
next crop: bands whose development has been (mis)shaped
by the success of "Nevermind".

   So if you thought the first, "authentic" wave was dire enough,
gird thy lug-holes for the likes of Kyuss, Stone Temple Pilots, and
Wool.  These neo-grungers occupy a constricted triangle of terrain
whose points are Black Sabbath, Black Flag, and Helmet.  Their
vocalists all bellow in that godawful Soundgarden/Alice In Chains
pseudo-blues style, like Joe Cocker being crushed between two slabs
of conrete.  Kyuss' "Blues For The Red Sun" LP, for instance, is
a dismal slog of down-tuned guitars and sluggish tempos.  The video
for the single "Thong Song" is set in some kind of sallow-lit
dungeon, while the song itself oscillates between a stop-start,
crippled riff and ineffectual blasts of rage, like a prisoner in
solitary trying to escape by using his head as a battering ram.

     If Kyuss are singing the modern blues, as the LP title seems to
claim, this is the blues as sung by Ozzy Osbourne and filtered
through Henry Rollins.  Rollins' agonised throes of failed, flailing
masculinity, as first and best heard on Black Flag's "Damaged", were
a seminal influence on Nirvana.  And Rollins' recent song "Low Self
Esteem" captures the (dis)spirit of grunge perfectly.  Musclebound
but impotent, grunge is masculine, but never macho in a flamboyant
Jagger/Plant/Axl way.  Grunge isn't the new cock rock, it's the
castration blues.

    And so bands like Kyuss don't swagger, they strain: their
riffage sounds strenuous, like it's perpetually on the verge of
sprouting a hernia. In a recent issue of Details, Rollins writes
eloquently about his almost mystical attitude to working out. He
sees "The Iron" as his only true friend: submitting to its regime,
he learns to channel his aggression and confront his own limits.
Like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Rollins is a survivalist, a One
Man Army, at war with himself.  If Rollins is parted from his
weights for any prolonged period, he sinks into a morass of
despondency, like a career soldier who's been demobilised against
his will.  With Rollins, Kyuss, et al, rock is a kind of spiritual
work-out, a fortification of the self in order to face the minefield
of everyday life.

    There's another strain of US rock activity, bands who don't
fight abjection but succumb to it: Come, Swell, Codeine, Toiling
Midgets, and other inhabitants of the abyss.  Where the turgid toil
of Rollins-rock is eventually numbing, this music is plain numb:
Come should really call themselves Coma. Again, "the blues" are
waved around by some as a reference point, but I can't hear it,
except in so far as this music is black-and-blue with emotional
bruises, blue like the rigor mortis of an overdose victim.

     If there's a gleam of brightness on the bleak horizon of US
rock, it takes the form not of positivity but peculiarity: the
absurdist rock of lo-fi art-punks like Royal Trux, Thinking Fellers
Union Local 282, Cul de Sac, Sun City Girls, Fantastic Palace, Wall
Drug, and others.  Operating somewhere to the left of Pavement and
Mercury Rev, these bands are heavily influenced by the warped and
wired fractures of The Fall, the fissile soundscapes of Faust and
Can, and Sonic Youth's oldstyle guitar-reinvention. Although they
have a similar experimental approach to the British avant-rock
fringe (Moonshake, Earwig, Bark Psychosis, Disco Inferno, Papa
Sprain etc), the US weirdos are still somewhat restricted by their
guitar-fetishism.  US rock has yet to embrace the psychedelic
possibilites of sampling: it still thinks disco sucks.  The two
Brit-rock pinnacles of the Nineties-Primal Scream's "Higher Than The
Sun" and MBV's "To Here Knows When"-could never have happened
without rave culture.  But even with their lo-fi Luddite tendencies,
these art-punks know how to marvel, rather than wallow in the mire
of moroseness.

[footnote: now i would much rather listen to the mire-of-morose bands of that era - Alice of Chains above all, but probably Kyuss and possibly even Wool whoever the fuck they were - than any of them lo-fi record-clerk collector/zine-ed type bands]

Sunday, May 7, 2017

three favorite music books

[written for somebody as part of an interview i did, bonus side-bar thing or something, can't remember who, can't remember when - the concept was "three music books you love that aren't that well known or are forgotten"

Starlust (1985) by Fred and Judy Vermorel has been out of print for years, but is just about to get reissued by my publisher as part of its Faber Finds imprint. Here’s how I blurbed it: “This fascinating and groundbreaking expose . . . lifts the lid on fan culture to reveal—and revel in—its literally idolatrous delirium. Yet, far from manipulated dupes of a cynical record industry, fans are shown to be subversive fantasists who use the objects of their worship as a means to access the bliss and glory they cannot find in their everyday lives and social surroundings. A lost classic of pop-culture critique that’s woven almost entirely out of the testimonials and confessions of the fans themselves, Starlust is above all a celebration of the power of human imagination.”
Big Noises (1991) is a really enjoyable book about guitarists by the novelist Geoff Nicholson. It consists of 36 short “appreciations” of axemen (and they’re all men; indeed, it’s quite a male book but quite unembarrassed about that). These range from obvious greats/grates like Clapton/Beck/Page/Knopfler to quirkier choices like Adrian Belew, Henry Kaiser, and Derek Bailey. Nicholson writes in a breezy, deceptively down-to-earth style that nonetheless packs in a goodly number of penetrating insights. I just dug this out of my storage unit in London a couple of months ago and have been really enjoying dipping into it.
The Boy Looked At Johnny (1978) by Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons is a curious thing: proof that a music book can be almost entirely wrong and yet remain a bona fide rockwrite classic. Allegedly written in a few days during an amphetamine bender, it’s subtitled “The Obituary of Rock and Roll,” but is really a requiem for the then-married authors’ broken-hearted belief in punk-as-revolution. Bitter and bitchy, strident and stylish, it had a huge impact on me at the time, as it did on loads of other impressionable youths; I was surprised to find out later that many people at the time of its release disapproved/deplored/dismissed it altogether. A big deal at the time, The Boy Looked At Johnny really has been forgotten. Few today even remember that perennially infamous newspaper opionator Burchill was once a music journalist—indeed, for a few years, the U.K.’s most famous rock writer.

Monday, May 1, 2017

beard rock 2009

Notes On the Noughties column, Guardian, winter 2009

by Simon Reynolds

Standing on a subway platform waiting for the L train to Brooklyn recently, I saw a group of young men with that slightly scruffy, indeterminately hip look that screams "Williamsburg" and was struck by the fact that all three of them had beards.  Later that same week, walking down a single block in the East Village, I passed around a dozen men in the 18 to 35 age range who were bearded.  A few days after that, watching New York Noise, an alternative rock cable TV show,  I saw several videos in a row in which most members of the group sported one form or other of facial fuzz, climaxing with Fleet Foxes's  hairier-than-thou "He Doesn't Know Why".

It was then that it struck me that beardedness had gradually become one of the crucial, era-defining signifiers for Noughties non-mainstream rock.

That's particularly the case in the United States, where whiskers have an obvious fit with alt-country and free folk. But things have gotten pretty hirsute this past decade in the U.K. too.  Take a look at this TV commercial, part of British Airways "face-to-face" campaign to "promote entrepreneurship in tough times" and focusing in this case on the U.K. music industry.  It's meant to be a sort of slideshow of today's hot, hip 'n' happening  Brit-rock scene. But the panorama of long straggly hair, peasant skirts, acoustic guitars and beards feels more like you've gone through a time tunnel to 1972. Until recently there was even a Scottish music zine called Beard whose cover stars tended to be mutton-chopped minstrels such as Alasdair Roberts and Robert Wyatt. 

The magazine's founders Stewart Smith and Neil Jacques developed "an admiration for beards" at the start of this decade through listening to a ton of Wyatt, Dennis Wilson, and Will Oldham.
Formerly of Palace Brothers and also known as Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, Oldham pioneered the new beardedness.   He actually looks like a pioneer, an early American homesteader or beaver-trapper. Just check the sepia-toned photograph on the cover of his 2003 album Master and Everyone, which has the old-timey aura of a Daguerrotype or Calotype portrait circa the American Civil War. The bald dome only accentuates the dense thickets of bristles engulfing the lower half of his head.

Sharing reference points like Harry Smith’s 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music and John Fahey, Oldham is a fellow- traveler to the free folk scene, an entire region of  U.S. underground music that's virtually Gilette-free.  When it comes to untamed brush, Matt Valentine of the duo MV & EE is something of a vanguard figure.  He and his partner Erika Elder live out in the woodlands near Brattleboro, Vermont, an area that's been a magnet for East Coast bohemians since hippie days.  For glimpses of Valentine's magnificent bracken, check out this footage of MV & EE performing with the Canada Goose Band (a combo who took their name from a brand of rolling papers) 

 and also this short interview where the duo discuss their political and spiritual beliefs  
(note how  Elder describes the output of their record label Child Of Microtones as a "harvest").

Valentine is sniffy about the more "commercial" end of freak folk (performers like Joanna Newsom, who spiritually at least is a bearded lady) for being too sonically groomed. But there's no deny that Devendra  Banhard has contributed massively to setting back the cause of cleancut-ness this decade. Other notable Noughties hairies who've put the willies up the Wilkinson shareholdership include Bon Iver, Band of Bees, Destroyer's Daniel Bejar, Iron & Wine's Sam Beam, Band of Horses, and  Broken Social Scene  (roughly 80 percent of whose sprawling line-up go unshaven, with most of the remainder being female).  Strangely, Grizzly Bear favour the razor, while Animal Collective is only one thirds furry.

"What about Wayne Coyne?" I hear you cry.  True, he has one of the most pleasing countenances in all of modern rock, a look that is somehow consonant with the Flaming Lips sound.  But I think Wayne's salt-and-pepper beard has a slightly different inflection to the Noughties nu-folkies.  It's evocative more of Laurel Canyon and soft-rock Los Angeles circa 1976:  Andrew Gold, even Michael McDonald when he was in the Doobie Brothers. Typically wearing a nice-looking jacket, Coyne seems urbane and contemporary, as opposed to rustic and bygone.

 As it happens, the neatly-trimmed (and well-washed) Seventies soft rock style beard has been cropping up in electronic music circles all through the decade,  from one half of Air to Norwegian "space disco" producer Lindstrom.

Earlier I suggested that face-fuzz had become an epoch-defining signifier in left-field rock. But what does it actually signify?  Let's look again at Fleet Foxes's "He Doesn't Know Why", where the group sound like angels but look like satyrs.

 Here beardedness becomes tantamount to a visual rhetoric, a form of authentication, as though the band are wearing their music on their faces.  The video is a symphony of brown hues; there's even livestock mingling with the band as they play, goats whose tufty throats accentuate the band's bewhiskeredness.   The promo's earthy colour-palette and the group's straggly and somewhat greasy beards make for a blatant example of image following the music's lead in echoing an era of rock history: 1968-1969, the very first time that rock grew a beard.   On "He Doesn't Know Why", the sound and visuals are equal parts Crosby Stills Nash & Young and The Band.  With Fleet Foxes's debut album featuring ditties about red squirrels and meadowlarks and song titles like "Ragged Wood" and "Blue Ridge Mountains," it hardly takes Roland Barthes to decode the beards as the physiognomic expression of that perennial American yearning for wilderness (a longing  seemingly felt most fiercely by young Americans who didn't grow up anywhere near remote rural areas).  In this symbolic scheme, facial fur = fir (and pine, spruce, maple, et al), while  Gillete = the timber industry, or "mountaintop removal" mining.

In a silent but eloquent protest against modernity, Fleet Foxes have turned their chins into miniature Appalachian forests.

Blissblog follow-up post on changing attitudes to facial hair and cycles of fashion / grooming through rock history

It wasn't like that in my day, let me tell you. Beards, in the postpunk late Seventies and early Eighties, weren't admirable, they were aberrant.  Postpunk's angst squad were pallid and wintry, the New Pop outfits like Orange Juice were fresh-faced and boyish.

If you saw a furry face in the NME it would be either a roots reggae band (the semiotics of beards have a completely different valence in black music in general) or it'd be someone like John Martyn or Richard Thompson, i.e. a throwback to another era, folk-rock.  Beards strangely doubled as signifiers of hippiedom and authority (they were what policemen had--just check the cover of David Peace's GB84 with its throng of coppers holding back a mass picket). 

At my college the only beard-wearers were a bunch of hippies, the same age as me but utterly dedicated to living in 1968 (they listened to The Hangman's Incredible Daughter).  Apart from these strident anachronists, the only other occurrences of  facial hair were rare and fell into particular categories.  It could be a guy who was short and slight and therefore sick of being offered half-price on public transport.  It could be the expression of radical self-neglect (often accompanied by body-odour or scurvy).  It could be the sign of an evangelical Christian (the beard expressing both Jesus-identification and a lack of vanity). Finally, the stereotype went, a beard was the insignia of the geology student.

By the late Eighties and on into the Nineties, beards started to become hip. You had the vaguely-Satanic, "R-U-ready-to-rock?" beard, as worn ironically by Zodiac Mindwarp and then in deadly earnest by Dave Navarro of Jane's Addiction and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden.  There were soul-patches and goatees and what you might call the "hemp beard" (Cypress Hill).

There was weirdy-beardy electronica (Richard D. James, Luke Vibert). 

Somewhere in the middle of this you also got the I-am-above-such-trifling-things-as-image beard,e.g.  the brambles that over-ran the face of Elvis Costello circa 1990, seemingly an act of pique at the fact that he wasn't getting hits anymore. 

(Paddy MacAloon's current image might be a variant of this kind of ex-popstar beard). 

Facial hair of ever-increasingly complexity became a staple of metal both on the underground (thrash, black, doom, etc) and mainstream (nu-metal) , perhaps signifying the resurgence of "real" metal bringing to an end the Eighties hair metal era (when pretty-boy rockers's faces were as smooth as their long locks were silky). 

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Mutoid Waste Company

Mutoid Waste Company
Melody Maker, early 1988

by Simon Reynolds

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Sonic Youth, portal bands, and the album as a portrait of the artist as consumer

Guardian blog, Tuesday 7 April 2009

by Simon Reynolds

In the early 1980s NME featured a column called Portrait of the Artist as a Consumer. Every week a musician listed their favourite records, books, films and TV, maybe an artist or two, sometimes clothes or food. Typically, there'd be a mixture of eternal talismans and fleeting fancies. Now magazines are littered with charticles, lists and celeb-related space-filler of every kind, but back then it was a striking and original move: Portrait of the Artist as a Consumer revealed the star as a fan, the creator as a punter.

At its most interesting, the result was a splayed-out map to a singer or group's aesthetic. So when the Birthday Party's Nick Cave and Rowland S Howard did one, their checklist – which included Wise Blood, Johnny Cash, Night of the Hunter, Lee Hazelwood, Morticia Adams – was a perfect cross-section of southern gothic and trash Americana that helped explain the group's transition from their early style (Rimbaud/Baudelaire meets Ubu/Beefheart) to the pulpy guignol of Junkyard and the Bad Seed and Mutiny! EPs.

Certainly there had been a few artists in rock prior to this who'd gone further than idle interview chat about influences, performers whose music came attached with a sort of invisible reading and movie-watching list: Bowie, obviously, with songs about Andy Warhol and extremist performance artist Chris Burden; Roxy Music, to a slightly less overt degree. This became more of a fixture during the intensely bookish post-punk era (which makes sense, given that so many of them were fans of Bowie, Bryan and Brian). Recently, some of our more erudite bloggers have deployed the notion of the "portal" to describe the way a certain type of band (The Smiths, Manic Street Preachers) directed their fans to rich sources of brain-food, a whole universe of inspiration and ideas beyond music. Post-punk was rife with figures like Howard Devoto or Mark E Smith whose lyrics or interviews might turn you on to Dostoevsky or Wyndham Lewis. Being a Throbbing Gristle fan was like enrolling in a university course of cultural extremism. In a different corner of the post-punk world, Paul Weller placed clues for Jam fans with All Mod Cons' inner-sleeve tableau of mod fetishes; he'd return to this idea of mod as hyper-discerning consumerism with the cover of the Style Council's Our Favourite Shop.

Perhaps any really interesting band has a map of taste buried within their music for the obsessive fan to dig out. But what started to happen in the early 80s – exactly around the time NME was doing Portrait of the Artist as a Consumer – was that the taste map became a lot more explicit and exposed. The aesthetic co-ordinates not only rose to the surface of the group's output, but in some sense functioned as an integral part of the music itself.

With the Smiths this came through not just in the myriad allusions in the lyrics (many sampled verbatim from films, plays, novels) but also the systematic iconography of the record-sleeve images chosen by Morrissey. After leaving the Birthday Party, Nick Cave began signposting those deep south Americana influences in earnest across his early solo work, covering Elvis Presley's "In the Ghetto" and wrapping The Firstborn is Dead in Folkways-style ethnographic sleevenotes. Then he literalised the artist as consumer notion with Kicking Against the Pricks, his 1986 covers album, which laid out a smorgasbord of all the things from which he and the Bad Seeds drew artistic nourishment: blues, country, and the epic balladry of Gene Pitney and Glenn Campbell, a style he described as "entertainment music, although some might call it corn". Cave was announcing his evolution from shaman to showman, from Dionysian exhibitionist to storyteller and character actor. The impact of this trajectory on his impressionable fan-flock is one thing that comes through in the series of documentaries made by artist duo Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard to accompany each of Mute Records's deluxe Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds reissues, which launch on 27 April with the four-album stretch from From Her to Eternity to Your Funeral … My Trial.

But what actually reminded me of the Portrait of the Artist as a Consumer column was the new album by another veteran of the same 80s noise/sickness scene that Nick Cave passed through: Sonic Youth. The Eternal is their first release for Matador after leaving Geffen and the major-label sector. According to the press release, virtually every song contains a nod towards an artist admired by Sonic Youth. So Sacred Trickster doubles as a salute to artist Yves Klein and the band Noise Nomads. Anti-Orgasm was inspired by Uschi Obermeier, a German counterculture icon who first lived in Amon Düül's Munich commune, then joined Berlin's supremely nonconformist Kommune 1. Leaky Lifeboat (for Gregory Corso) is based on the Beat poet's metaphor for life on Earth, while Thunderclap for Bobby Pyn is named after an alter ego used by Darby Crash, suicidal frontman of Los Angeles punk legends the Germs. (Now I know what my favourite Ariel Pink tune, The Ballad of Bobby Pyn refers to). Other songs contain sonic echoes of or riff-citations from the Dead C, Neu!, Kevin Ayers, Sonic's Rendezvous Band and the Wipers. Even the artwork is homage: it's a painting by the late John Fahey.

So The Eternal is literally a self-portrait of the artists as consumers. With a few exceptions, each song is a byproduct of Sonic Youth's culture-vulture virtuosity at locating choice morsels of carrion left behind by vintage vanguards and bygone extremists. This has always been an aspect of Sonic Youth, from Death Valley '69 (inspired by the Manson Family and the moment the 60s trip turned heavy) through the Ciccone Youth side project with its conceptual-karaoke takes on Madonna and Robert Palmer songs offset by the hipster esotericism of Two Cool Rock Chicks Listening to Neu! (this was back when knowing about Neu! wasn't virtually middlebrow like it is today, as the records were still out of print). I know people for whom Sonic Youth functioned absolutely as a portal band, an entry point for them into an underground wonderworld of dissident noisemaking and neo-beat bohemia stretching across several decades.

There are plenty of other bands who do this kind of heavily referential work (Stereolab and Saint Etienne spring to mind) but listening to The Eternal, I suddenly started thinking about how it was an odd place from which to write songs. At least, looking at it from the standpoint of seeing songs as the expression of personal experience. It's not the only standpoint, it's quite an old-fashioned one, but it does happen to be the approach and mindset of just about all the artistic, literary and musical icons Sonic Youth are honoring on The Eternal. You can't really imagine Gregory Corso or Darby Crash operating like that. Their art would be a lot more expressionistic and cathartic and torn from the soul. No doubt Sonic Youth have arrayed these touchstones before their audience because they find them imperishably inspirational (perhaps that's why it's called The Eternal?). And, for sure, it's perfectly possible to be profoundly moved by works of art in other mediums than the one you work on. But moved to write a song about it? (One tune on The Eternal, Calming the Snake, is apparently Kim Gordon "musing on visions of Death in painting".) It all seems oddly meta, to have more in common with the kind of thing that goes on in the art world. Like the re-enactments done by people such as … well, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard (whose works include the restaging of a legendary fan-bootlegged 1978 Cramps concert at a mental asylum). Or like the artist Phil Collins with the Smiths songs/karaoke video installation the World Won't Listen, which is just about to get its UK debut at The Tramway in Glasgow.

Then again, Sonic Youth emerged from a New York scene where the music underground and the avant-garde art world were intimately entwined: Kim Gordon did some writing for Artforum, and they've often featured work by cutting-edge artists on their sleeves. Various members of Sonic Youth would be among the first to have the phrase "curated by" placed in front of their names when they did things like release a series of limited-edition singles or select the lineup for a music festival. In this light, writing a song about Uschi Obermeier is no different from Gerhard Richter doing his paintings of the Baader-Meinhof gang. (Indeed, Richter's famous Candles paintings were used on Daydream Nation's cover). Listening to Anti-Orgasm, though, I did wonder what the story of a late 60s Berlin kommune that didn't believe in the nuclear family could possibly mean to a happily married, middle-aged couple whose daughter Coco is a couple of years from considering which universities to apply to. (Sonic Youth itself, whose core lineup has been stable for 24 years, is like a successful marriage.) It does seem like a curious act of radical retro-chic.

The album? It sounds like a Sonic Youth record. There'll always be fluctuations within their trademark style – softer to harder, songs-y to noise-y – but their course is essentially settled. (I don't see them doing a John Cale and putting out an R&B/G-funk influenced album). For this Daydream Nation lover, slipping back into this sound – the halo of haze churned up by the riff-pummel of Antenna – is cosy, like putting on a worn pair of slippers. But I can't say I felt anything, exactly, from the songs.


Mark Fisher's K-punk post following up on this piece and upping the anti-SY ante

My Blissblog post picking up from Mark's post

Another fiery salvo from the Man like Kpunk

And another post from me with links to further contributions to the curator-as-creator debate, including Aaron at Airport Through the Trees's own caustic anti-SY critique 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Ciccone Youth

Ciccone Youth

The Whitey Album (Blast First)

Melody Maker, 14 January 1989

By Simon Reynolds 

Next to the brittle plangency and luminous, labyrinthine depths of Daydream Nation, the first (and last?) Ciccone Youth album is an irrelevance.
The delays surrounding its release have stranded The Whitey Album in an unhappy mid-region between the timely and the timeless. All its bearings (hip hop, Madonna, Robert Palmer's 'Addicted To Love') are decidedly passé, the year before last year's things. And where Daydream Nation is a workThe Whitey Album is a ragbag of tired japes, off-the-cuff ideas that must have seemed bright at the time, plus some interesting if somewhat aimless experimental excursions.
Of course, Sonic Youth have always had a throwaway side to their collective personality, have always had the potential to lapse into half-assed pastiche, a la Pussy Galore, and perhaps we should be grateful that they invented an alter-ego in order to safely vent all this buffoonery without marring the immaculate trajectory of the Sonic Youth oeuvre.
If The Whitey Album is a receptacle for a group's wayward impulses and off-moments, then its most miserable items of waste (of their talent and our time) are the ones I can only describe as conceptual jokes. '(silence)', for instance, is a sped-up version of John Cage's original "4 '33" – that's to say, a couple of minutes of silence. 'Two Cool Rock Chicks Listening To Neu!' also describes itself succintly – it's a tape of Kin Gordon and someone called Suzanne discussing the merits and demerits of managing Dinosaur Jr, then ringing up J. Mascis only to find he's out. It's precisely the kind of found recording that Krautrock groups like Faust, Can and Neu! liked to include in their psychedelic collages – hence the irony of having Neu! droning away in the background.
'Addicted To Love', like 'Into The Groove', is Sonic Youth invading a superstar's psyche Take Two, a gesture whose irreverence has palled somewhat in the wake of Age Of Chance, Laibach, Pussy Galore et al. In this case, Kim Gordon goes into a make-your-own-record booth to lay down her wan vocal over an extremely lame session band's version of Robert Palmer's chauvinist anthem. Droll.
The Whitey Album isn't irredeemable. The soiling sheets of noise draped over Madonna's 'Into The Groove' are still a delight. And there are at least three tracks to dwell on and dwell inside. 'G-Force' has Kim murmuring non-sequiturs and shards of banal conversation in the midst of unhinged drones and infinitely receding resonances. 'Platoon II' seems to be recorded in an underground silo; it's an ambient dubscape, stressed and fatigued metal sounds striated and stretched out to form a wombing vastness. 'Macbeth' has a predatory beat and sounds of metal chafing against metal. These tracks look forward to the ambient innovations of parts of Daydream Nation, and back to the experiments of groups like Faust and Can in the early Seventies.
The Whitey Album is a for-fans-only affair, but if it's purged Sonic Youth of silliness, then it's served a purpose. And it highlights the rival definitions of post-modernism that Sonic Youth find themselves torn between. On the one hand, post-modernism, according to Transvision Vamp/Pussy Galore – pastiche, plagiarism, irony, the idea that there's nothing left to do in pop but play around with cliches. On the other hand, post-modernism as the chaos of a culture falling apart at the seams. Put The Whitey Album next to Daydream Nation and it's apparent how small and obsolete mischief seems next to mental breakdown.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Fall circa Infotainment Scan

The Fall

New York Times, 11 July 1993

by Simon Reynolds 

The Fall are one of England’s enduring cult bands. Formed in 1976 by the singer and lyricist Mark E. Smith, it evolved into one of the most critically acclaimed and influential groups of the post-punk era. In the mid-80's, the Fall was the prototype for the abrasive British genre of ‘shambling bands’. More recently, its coruscating sound and cryptic lyrics have been a major influence on the ‘indie’ scene in the United States. Pavement, the most prominent band in the burgeoning American lo-fi underground, is indebted to the Fall, as are other up-and-coming groups like Truman's Water, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 and God Is My Co-Pilot.
The Fall has signed with the hip independent label Matador, and the band's new album is its first for some while to be widely distributed in the United States. The Infotainment Scan (Matador/Atlantic 92263; all three formats), the Fall's 16th studio album, is one of the group's most accessible, so it may be that the band will reach a whole new audience, primed by Pavement, et al.
In its early days, the Fall was infamous for being listener-unfriendly. The second album, Dragnet, plumbed new depths of bargain-basement recording. On subsequent landmark albums like Grotesque (After the Gramme), Slates and Hex Enduction Hour, the Fall wove a dense, forbidding but – for those who persevered – captivating trance rock. Over implacable rockabilly rhythms, the band layered a thick wall of droning, distorted guitars in the tradition of minimalists like the Velvet Underground and the German band Can.
The Fall also experimented with techniques that involved degrading the guitar textures and distorting the human voice; one of Mr. Smith's favorite tricks was to feed his voice through a megaphone. He dubbed the band's style "country-and-northern," making a link between the raw primitivism of the Fall's sound and the surly attitude that's often attributed to the natives of Manchester, his hometown in the north of England.
Lyrically, he offered a bilious, withering dissection of British society. But instead of sloganeering, his songs immersed the listener in the grimy textures of working-class life. A self-educated avant-gardist from the wrong side of the tracks, Mr. Smith devised a distinctive fractured style that recalls the cut-up prose of William Burroughs.
As the 80's progressed, the Fall veered closer to pop with albums like The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall and This Nation's Saving Grace and even scored a number of chart hits. Meanwhile, Mr. Smith became a reliably controversial interviewee for the music press. His persona remains that of the classic British misanthrope, who scorns humbug and political cant whether it comes from the left or right. Mr. Smith's intransigence is best exemplified by his fervent belief in a man's right to kill himself smoking.
Musically, The Infotainment Scan may be one of the Fall's more approachable records, but Mr. Smith's lyrics are as caustic as ever, while his wizened sneer of a voice will always be jarring. Not for the first time, he aims his ire at what he regards as fatuous or regressive tendencies in pop culture. ‘Glam-Racket No.3’ takes a potshot at the current British youth trend of 70's revivalism. Over a fuzz-drenched riff and a stomping beat that's pure homage to glitter rock circa 1972, Mr. Smith decries nostalgia and makes a pointed jibe at the nouveau glam-rock band Suede, which is hugely popular in Britain.
The Fall's version of the Sister Sledge disco classic ‘Lost in Music’ may also conceal a pop-culture critique. The song was always an ambivalent commentary on dance culture's escapism (as well as the life of the professional musician), and Mr. Smith is probably using it to deride the British rave scene, which – like disco – is "caught in a trap" of druggy hedonism and mass amnesia. Paradoxically, the Fall's version retains much of the shimmering fleetness that made the original so enchanting.
The album's second side sees the Fall continue the flirtation with rave rhythms and the squelchy synthesizer textures of techno that it has indulged in on recent albums. Contemporary trance-dance has an obvious fit with Mr. Smith's early creed; "repetition in the music, and we're never gonna lose it." The song ‘Service’ layers an eerie mesh of vocal harmonies over a limber, shuffling funk groove. ‘The League of Bald-Headed Men’ seems to be a diatribe against gerontocracy, although it's hard to decipher whether its target is the decrepit fogies who rule Britain or the baby-boomer superstars who dominate international pop.
‘A Past Gone Mad’ is an anti-nostalgia rant layered over state-of-art techno squiggles and a hyped-up hip-hop beat, as it to proclaim that the Fall isn't afraid to move with the times. The band never has been, but the secret of its continued relevance is that the Fall never bends with the times. Mr. Smith and his band absorb whatever in the cultural climate is worth bothering with (what's not, he invariably scorns in song or interview) and make it swing to a rollicking, remorseless beat. Here's to the next 17 years of the Fall.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Charlatans

The Charlatans

Spin, 1990

by Simon Reynolds

In the U.K., the last few years have seen the original sequence of '60s rock replayed – in reverse. Nineteen eighty-eight was the year of 1969 – the year the hippie dream turned sour (Altamont, Manson).
Groups like Spacemen 3, Loop, and M Bloody Valentine resurrected a version of psychedelia that was more about the chaos of schizophrenia than a jolly day trip from reality. But in 1989, the U.K. pop scene backtracked to 1967, with the Manchester wave of groups leading the retreat to flower power's Day-Glo euphoria. The Stone Roses name-checked the Beatles, Hendrix, and Pink Floyd; the Inspiral Carpets exhumed the tin-pot organ and nasal harmonies of psychedelia's first flush of callow enthusiasm. In 1988, the watchword was ‘heavy’, in the last two years, it's been ‘good vibes’. Psychic and social disintegration has given way to mellow communion, as proclaimed by anthems like Primal Scream's ‘Come Together’ and the Stone Roses' ‘One Love’.
Some observers have compared the Manchester upheaval to the trajectory of mod music in the '60s. In both cases, British groups took lessons in rhythm from the black American dance music of the moment. "Detroit and Chicago have been to us, and other current groups, what Memphis and Chicago were to the Stones and the other white R&B groups of the '60s," claims Tim Burgess, lead singer of the Charlatans. "The acid-house boom was the first time I got excited about music that was happening in my lifetime."
The Charlatans hail from the midlands of the U.K. (a nondescript, industrial region south of Manchester). They originally formed at the instigation of keyboard player Rob Collins, who wanted to base a band around his Hammond organ. Martin Blunt (bass), Jon Baker (guitar), and Jon Brookes (drums) were recruited from sundry mod and psychedelic bands in the locality. The group's rise began when they supported the Stone Roses on tour. From the Roses, the Charlatans cribbed two essential factors for U.K. pop success. First, a loose-limbed, syncopated dance beat (ultimately derived from James Brown's ‘Funky Drummer’) Second, a desirable, charismatic front man, exuding laid-back arrogance. They spotted the lippy – that's to say, luscious and loudmouthed – Tim Burgess fronting his own group, the Electric Crayons, and wasted no time in nabbing him.
The result was the weird hodgepodge of period detail and 1990 pop currency that is the Charlatans – crisp rare groove rhythms, folk-edelic ‘60s harmonies, the sepia-tinted swell of the Hammond organ, and guitar that veers from flecked funk to flanged psychedelia. The Charlatans' LP, Some Friendly, ranges from lightweight Talking Heads-style albino funk like ‘The Only One I Know’ to glowering mood pieces like the frustratingly implosive ‘Then’ and groggy, druggy bouts of acid-rock experimentation like ‘Opportunity’, ‘1O9 Pt 2’ and ‘Sproston Green’. Like so much indie/college rock, it can't help but be music about other music, telling you more about the extent and excellence of a band's record collection than anything ‘out there’.
The Charlatans fail to shrug off the burden of their multiple precedents more often than they succeed (the exception being the aforementioned druggier songs like ‘Opportunity’), but like the Stone Roses they have been seized upon by a generation that's either too young to know or too desperate to care about what deja vu means.
When Tim Burgess's face made it onto the cover of The Face last year, it was an uncanny echo of a decade-earlier Face cover featuring the luscious, pouting Ian McCulloch of Echo and the Bunnymen. Nothing could have more clearly signaled the sea change in UK pop consciousness than this flashback to the days when the mop-top-and-black-clothes look was in. For most of the '80s, the Face had celebrated ‘style culture’ – a semi-mythical metropolitan scene, based around nightclubs and brasseries. Rock was decreed ‘dead’, and Face disciples danced on its grave to the beat of the latest U.S.-import 12-inch. But by 1990, style culture's bubble had burst (thanks to the anti-elitist rave scene and the insurgent indie rock/dance crossover). TheFace was forced to revert to what it had been in its early days: a rock magazine featuring the kind of pallid, spotty indie kids it would have previously barred entrance to for not looking sufficiently cool.
Burgess comes from Northwich, a small town equidistant from Liverpool and Manchester. "I've always believed that the northwest of England has produced better groups than the rest of the U.K. They have more time to develop, whereas London bands get hounded so quickly by the press. The early-'80s Liverpool scene is kind of a parallel with the Manchester thing now. Back then bands like Teardrop Explodes and Echo and the Bunnymen got lumped together; now it's the Roses, the Mondays, the Charlatans. I don't understand why, because all the bands are really different.
"We're not a total life-style package like the Mondays or the Farm," says Burgess, "with clothes and drugs and soccer and a whole attitude. We're obsessed with taking music further. We don't have the attitude of other groups who say, 'Well, we're not playing a gig that night 'cause a big soccer match is on TV.' I've never been into sports anyway."

The Charlatans

Melody Maker, 22 December 1990

by Simon Reynolds 

1990 could well go down in the rock almanac as the year The Charlatans stole the initiative from The Stone Rose. While the figureheads of the Manc explosion spent the year paralysed by the expectations of critics and audience alike, The Charlatans materialised out of nowhere (the West Midlands) to usurp the Roses' rightful place as chartbusting purveyors of Sixties psychedelia with a 1990 funk undercarriage.
The Charlatans are the photogenic option in the post-Manc jamboree: Tim Burgess' enigmatic, androgynous allure makes him the material for classic teenybop obsession, in a way that the laddish likes of Shaun Ryder and Peter Hooton never could be. And where The Stone Roses have been stalled by the obligation to articulate Manchester's ‘new vibe’, The Charlatans are free to be vague, to suggest more than they reveal.
After the Top 20 hits ‘The Only One I Know’ and ‘Then’, the critical/commercial success of their debut album Some Friendly, and the first signs of future mega status in America, The Charlatans now look like the ones-most-likely to prosper after the Manc hype runs out of steam.
Here, Tim Burgess reflects on a glorious year.
It's not a movement, it's more like an atmosphere. Any idea of it being a movement was created as an afterthought, usually by journalists. But I think it's true that in 1989, a whole load of fresh attitudes started to come through. The independent scene used to have this traditional indie attitude, which was that if you were successful, that meant you weren't really indie. But the Charlatans have never been afraid to call ourselves pop. At the same time, our attitude is independent. We're not puppets, there's no one dictating anything to us. We've always despised that kind of thing.
Northwich, his hometown
It's 18 miles south of Manchester, and 20 miles away from Liverpool. So I've had the most brilliant musical upbringing. I've always believed that the North-West has produced better groups. They have more time to develop. London groups get hounded so quickly by the press, the music business is right on your doorstep if you're a London group. There's quite a few parallels between the Manchester thing and the Liverpool scene in the early Eighties. Back then, Teardrop Explodes and Echo And The Bunnymen got classed together, and nowadays it's the Roses, the Mondays, the Inspirals, The Charlatans, who get lumped together. But all the groups were really different from each other.
Being a sex symbol
I never, ever thought of myself like that. But I won't argue with it, so long as it's not used to trivialise the music. Before I was in a group, I was never considered to be particularly good looking. For about three years, I was going out five nights a week, but I never had a girlfriend. I can't complain about being regarded as a sex symbol. It won't affect my ego, because I've always had a big ego! At the same time, I'm pretty realistic. All the people in this band are among the most sorted out people I know.
Fame, Destiny, life in a small town
Being a teenager in a smallish town, it always seemed so tragic to be so far from the cities, where all the excitement was. But I always knew I'd be doing something extraordinary one day. For years, I was dying to be doing what I'm doing now. Everything apart from being in a group just seemed so trivial. It was either that, or wanting to be a pilot or a footballer or a writer.
The indie/dance crossover
We definitely have a kind of black feel in our rhythms. I suppose that's why everyone compares what's happened in the last two years to the Stones and the mod groups. They were influenced by the black dance music coming across from the Memphis and Chicago. And our sort of band has been influenced by the House rhythms coming over from Detroit and Chicago. House was the first time I got excited by a music that had happened in my lifetime. See, I just missed out on punk. So the rave scene was the first musical revolution of my 22 summers!
The Hammond organ
When we started out, we realised that there had never been a brilliant group whose sound was based around the Hammond organ. And we wanted to be the first. I don't know what it is about that sound, it just gets me really excited. There's something really perverse about that instrument. It sounds sort of orgasmic. It really turns me on!
The songs
‘You're Not Very Well’: I suppose it's a bit like out ‘Get Off My Cloud’. It's our response to the people who try to scrutinise you for having a good time, and analyse everything to death. It was originally gonna be called ‘Sick In The Head’, but we decided to go for the understatement. We're too clever to say, "F*** off!"
‘Flower’: It's a death threat aimed at someone who's been disrupting my past. I don't harbour grudges generally, but there's three that I won't forget. ‘Sproston Green’: It's about a place in Northwich, where I had my first sexual encounter. I was 14 or 15, and there was this girl who used to make me do things to her. She was much older than me. So I guess you could say that I was seduced at an early age.
Androgyny Versus ‘The New Laddishness’
If we adopted a laddish image because that's what's fashionable, it'd be contrived. We're not like that. We're just into music. Whereas with Happy Mondays and The Farm, they're about a whole lifestyle package: the football, the clothes, the drugs. Music is our supreme obsession. We don't have that attitude of other groups, where they'll say that they won't play a gig on a particular night because there's a match on telly, or they won't rehearse on Sunday because they're playing five-a-side. We've no interest in anything apart from music. We're obsessed with taking the music further. I've never been interested in sport. I've very little time for football.
I don't like to open myself up totally. After all, it's not as though I know the people who interview me. Sometimes I'll leave the room after half an hour, when I know the interviewer wants five hours of open heart surgery. Always leave them wanting more, that's my attitude.
With the lyrics, I like to leave things oblique. Like the title Some Friendly: I kept it deliberately vague so as to give people a chance to think. And they do, they read so many different things into it. With a lot of lines, I don't know where they came from, or what they mean. There's parts of the brain that we don't know anything about. I use intuition and dream imagery and random things. And I like to use images and allusions that I know only mean something to me. Listeners seem to make more out of stuff like that, rather than if you spell everything out. It's the only way I know how to think or speak or be. I don't like to analyse, it ruins everything. For instance, if you were married to someone for two years, you could probably write a really accurate assessment of that person. But for me, it's the guess-work that's interesting, that early stage when you can't figure someone out.
The songs are a mixture of fact and fantasy. Sometimes they're about imaginary relationships, or they're wishful thinking, things I dream of happening. That's far more exciting than some dreary factual account of my life. Who wants to know if I've had sex and what it was like? It's miles better if I'd never had sex and wrote about what I imagined it was like!

Friday, March 17, 2017

Butthole Surfers interview 1990

Melody Maker, 8th December 1990

by Simon Reynolds

Butthole Surfers have re-emerged only to suffer the indignity of being topical. With uncanny punctuality, their cover of ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ coincides with the current Donovan revival (an upshot almost as bizarre as the rehabilitation of The Carpenters earlier this year).

"Isn’t it horrible?" says Gibby Haynes, on the phone from Texas. "We had no idea that Donovan had suddenly become hip. See, we’ve been playing that song live for years and years."
The original ‘Hurdy Gurdy’ was weird enough in its own right, and the Buttholes have only marginally increased its queasiness by putting a stomach-turning wobble in Gibby’s vocal. Still, it’s strangely appropriate that the Buttholes should be the Happy Mondays’ accomplices in rehabilitating the twee troubadour of flower power. There’s a case for saying that the Mondays are the nearest the UK has to a group like Butthole Surfers. Both groups have trailblazed the return to frying your brain with hallucinogens. And both groups’ ‘art’ consists of a torrential outpour of plagiarized and pastiched fragments of pop history, media flotsam and jetsam: a regurgitation of all the cultural garbage that’s been shoved down their throats.

"I don’t know too much about Happy Mondays or the Manchester thing," says Gibby. "We played there once and they hated us. Kathleen stood on her head for three songs. The promoter said we couldn’t come back."
In fact, the Buttholes have been disconnected from the state of pop over two years. Since 1988’s Hairway To Steven they’ve been lying low in Texas. Gibby has been absorbed by his obsession with video technology and computer graphics, one byproduct of which has been the perverse, rubberised images on the cover of last year’s Widowermaker EP, and the garbled, gurning faces on the cover of the new single.

‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ (the song refers to a folkloric figure from ye olde rural England) hinted that the forthcoming Buttholes album might be the full flowering of the penchant for pastoralism displayed on Hairway. In fact, it’s a grab bag, the Buttholes indulging all their disparate whims, and too often aiming to titillate rather than disorientate. 

On the plus side, ‘Barking Dogs’ and ‘Blind Man’ reprise the gastric/cosmic turbulence of ‘22 Going On 23’ and ‘Jimmy’, with guitarist Paul Leary scaling his usual Faustian heights. On the whole, though, there’s far too much emphasis on pastiche. ‘No, I’m An Iron Man’ pointlessly parodies The Jesus And Mary Chain, ‘Golden Showers’ is Southern fried boogie in the style of ZZ tap or Foghat ("A cool band, they were the model for Spinal Tap") and ‘Lonesome Bulldog (Parts 1-4)’ spoofs "the kind of MOR C&W you’d buy at a truckstop cassette stand, like Red Sovine."

Is there no form of cultural effluent that you can’t wrest some amusement from?
"I do appreciate just about anything," admits Gibby. "I don’t go as far as those people who have videotapes of their favourite TV commercials. I don’t go looking for weird shit, but it seems like it comes for me. There’s always stuff that never seems to cease to amaze and amuse. Like, for instance, I’m out in our front yard now, and I’m looking at where deer graze at night. In fact, I’m looking at a pile of deer droppings. And recently there’s been these incidents where stray deer have been attacking people. It’s the rutting season and they’re kind of aggressive. Three building workers were attacked by some stags. Then there was a 65-year-old man who was collecting bottle tops from the roadside and a deer gored him. Another story I read in the local paper was about this dog that got hit by a car. His owners buried him. A couple of days later the dog dug himself out. He’d been in a coma. So the stories crop up continually. The lyrics are almost 100 per cent derived from this kind of material."


ONE BENEFICIAL RESULT of the Buttholes’ two year furlough is the long-awaited fruition of Gibby and bassist Jeff Pinkus’ sideline project, The Jackofficers. The LP Digital Dump is a surprisingly convincing (but, naturally, thoroughly off-kilter) foray into dance music).
"It’s Tex-house", explains Gibby. "It’s kinda like Acid House if you’d never heard the music, but were inspired by the term. I’m not particularly into dance music. I used to be into disco when I was in high school, but I’m not up on the current dance scene. It’s taking off over here. Every town has a couple of clubs full of kids with weird haircuts dancing to industrial music. But there’s nothing like the UK’s rave scene over here. It’s a shame, I’ve always wanted to go to one of those huge dance parties out in the country. But somehow I can’t see a weird social revolution basing itself around synthesiser music. The way I’d like to go is further into psychedelic atmospheric and ambience. I’ve been into space music for a long while."

"The album is basically a load of jacking off," continues Jeff. "The working method was to sit in my bedroom playing with samplers, and most of all, make sure I changed my weed as often as possible. If I smoke too much of one kind, I get immune to the effect. So we’d rig up the technology to get weird effects and then take it to the studio. There’s no end to the games you can play with technology.
"Jackofficers is a pretty mindless project. It’s kind of training in getting new effects. I’m not especially into dance music. I was really surprised at how easy it is to make a dance track. I call it ‘bong-House’ because I listen to it when I’m doing bong hits. Hold on a second, I just want to turn the video on – there’s a documentary about this guy called Richard Speck who killed eight nurses."

Gibby and Jeff are speaking to me from the porch of the domicile they share with their two dogs. "It was the dog’s birthday yesterday," adds Jeff, apropos of nothing. "We barbecued him some filet mignons."
How do the neighbours react to the strange goings on and aberrant sounds emanating chez Butthole?
"Well, the nearest neighbour is 10 acres away and, when I met him, the first thing he said was, ‘Hi, I’m James, I’m into rebirthing and psycho-massage.’ The other neighbours are these people who own a 1,000-acre ranch which they inherited from the guy who invented the coat-hanger. So we don’t get too much trouble from the neighbours."
What kind of stuff have you been playing on the family stereo recently?
Gibby: "I’m listening to quite a lot of heavy metal these days. It seems like metal’s got so fast, it’s slowed down. If you play it at a low volume, it’s like ambient music, like a chorus of buzz-saws."
Jeff: "I like MC 900 Ft Jesus and Eric B & Rakim. I like the heavy low-end bass. The low end is my thing, that’s what I always look to aggravate in the Buttholes’ sound. Who care about guitars, y’know? I’m always looking for new ways to make the low end more gruelling."
And what does the future hold in store? "That’s half the fun, sitting around the family bong and spacin’ out on ideas, and then forgetting them. I can see a big ole roadrunner in that cloud – it’s bad-ass! We don’t want to take Jackofficers on tour, but we would like to have a Jackofficers party, with a huge sound system, and elephants and chickens and monkeys with skateboards. Shit like that. It would be real nice to have two bad-ass titty dancers from New England onstage with us!"

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Big Audio Dynamite and Schoolly D live 1986

Big Audio Dynamite/Schoolly D at Brixton Academy, London

 Melody Maker, 22 November 1986

by Simon Reynolds
HIP HOP is about a strange kind of unity: it's a community that responds to oppression not with a dream of solidarity and equality, but with a sociopathic individualism. A brotherhood bound in ruthless competition with each other. At a hip hop event there's a resonance between audience and performer that comes because the star lives out the fan's megalomaniac fantasies in a theatre of cruelty and triumph.
But tonight Schoolly D faced a different community, a hostile and ignorant audience. That faceless plain of rock fandom, shorthaired hippies, Mick Jones lookalikes nostalgic for the golden days of 1978. Many were wearing trainers, but not for the right reasons. There was no resonance. There was shit sound, far too little volume, and in truth Schoolly D didn't seem to be trying too hard either. The audience were indifferent, desultory even in their throwing of glasses on stage.
A pity, because the record is a quantum leap for hip hop. In the search for higher and harder hits, some have tried to mix hip hop with other substances, like rock or Go Go. Schoolly has opted for a purer, more vicious distillation of the drug. 'P.S.K.' is an avalanche. 'Put Your Filas On' shows D.J. Code Money to be a virtuoso, a poet of scratch.
But Schoolly let the side down badly, failing to tyrannise the audience. He bobbed from one end of the stage to the other, flicking his wrists in little gestures of dismissal, stopping now and then to adopt the new B-Boy posture: arms folded across the chest, supercilious gaze of disdain. Who's afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? Nobody here tonight.
I have not been impressed by Big Audio Dynamite hitherto: hip hop and punk united in relations of mutual enfeeblement, I thought. The very idea seemed a bit naff: four outlaw myths for the price of one — the rocker, the B-Boy, the rasta, the cowboy — all merged into a single cartoon swagger. Pile it all on. Basically, though, this is a rock'n'roll band, having as much to do with hip hop as ZZ Top. All that Jones has acquired from hip hop is the idea of theft — he'll rip off anything from 'Summertime Blues' to The Big Country theme to Raw Silk's 'Do It To The Music' to Ennio Morricone.
You know it's not in any sense dynamic rock or dance music, but somehow it works, as a fierce sloppiness, a flurry that sweeps you along in its blur if you're prepared to let it have its way with you. Strummer didn't make an appearance, which is what everyone wanted (even me), but this is The Clash at heart, with some technology and a new cosiness and songs drawn out for seven minutes. But the sentimentality (The Clash's great strength) is well to the fore. Mick Jones, with his pissed grin and slicked back hair and drainpipe physique, is a reactionary figure, but hard to dislike. And songs like 'V Thirteen', with their crestfallen melodies and cissy vocals, are really rather pretty in a mopey sort of way. But then I always thought 'E=MC2' sounded like China Crisis. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Diamanda Galas live 1989

Diamanda Galás at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Melody Maker, 14 January 1989

by Simon Reynolds

Diamanda Galas's AIDS trilogy Masque Of The Red Death draws a mixed bunch to the Queen Elizabeth Hall on New Year's Day — 50 per cent goth/immaculate consumptive types, whose pierced flesh, cryptic jewellery and uniformly black garb makes the theatre attendants' noses' wrinkle in disdain; 50 per cent rather more respectable, arthouse types.
But then Galas operates on the fringes of both the rock left-field and of modern classical music, and her work can be "enjoyed" on two levels — vicarious voyeurism (lookit da spookeee ladeee) and sober appreciation of her Statement.
After a prologue of deliciously hammy, Hammer House/Dr Phibes organ, Galas steps out and lets rip her infamous Munch howl. Her first "piece" is like a Muslim widow's prayer wail, a fathomless abyss of grief. She bucks and writhes as though struggling to unwind, work out and expel via her throat a giant tapeworm of ectoplasm. She cuts between this laser-searing scream and a verminous babble of multiple voices, like a horde of vindictive goblins. Or she sings against backing tapes of her own voice multi-tracked into a choir of wizened Middle Eastern crones.
It's impossibly intense, hideously beautiful, and the air crackles with the static electricity of a thousand heads of hair standing on end. I came at least partially prepared for this, but it's nice to think that some must have come with no expectations or prior experience. Some rape of sensibilities! And indeed, a few chickenshit members of the audience get up and leave. But, after 20 minutes of unmitigated vertigo, the impact dims, for no readily apparent reason. Perhaps because enough is as good as a feast. Perhaps because 20 minutes is long enough to acclimatise to even the most hostile aesthetic environment. Perhaps also because Galas stoops to didacticism, albeit of a rabid, spume-flecked sort.
Delivered, with pointed irony, from a pulpit, Galas' demonic sermon/tirade is sometimes platitudinous ("Don't give up the fight against the order of the homophobe", "all mandatory testing is aimed at containment"), sometimes acute ("big buck penitentiary USA…controllers of slow death…sifters of compassion") but always manageable in comparison to the inchoate, unarticulated grief of her wordless pieces. The same problem afflicts her attempts to inhabit more conventional musical genres, like the good-time R&B groove of 'You Must Be Certain Of The Devil', or the vaudevillian piano numbers that close the performance.
Masque Of The Red Death is most effective when Galas eschews commentary or irony, and simply drops us in it. The work may be intended as a plea for compassion, but it has no truck with the kindliness and good sense of therapeutic and counselling language. Instead Galas almost revels in the intoxicating imagery of exorcism and excoriation, scapegoating and pariah-dom. Perhaps she aims to show us, by induction, how deeply embedded in our souls is the medieval mindset — both the palpitating horror of invasion, corruption and pollution of the wholesome integrity of our own bodies, and the panic-reflex to segregate in order to purify and protect the social body. Whatever, this was at least a partial triumph for the demon diva.