Tunin' the motor, like a weekend boater
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Monday, July 18, 2016
Ghost Rider, motorcycle hero.
America, America’s killing its youth.
Dream, baby, dream.
Of course, Alan Vega will be remembered for what he brought to Suicide’s first album; it would be foolish to try to claim otherwise.
Words (and delivery thereof) as simple, as striking, as dangerous, as lustful, as otherworldly as anything that emerged from the ‘50s/’60s rock n’ roll / rhythm & blues culture he obviously admired so much, and just as much of an indelible part of American culture (or at least, the segments of it that matter) as a result.
Forty years on, you cannot reduce these songs, or laugh them off. You cannot play them on the radio without getting complaints; you cannot play them in the car with friends or relatives without breaking a sweat. “Punk”? “Avant Garde”? Posturing? Stupidity? Success? You tell me. Love them or hate them, once you’ve heard them, they will be with you forever.
You’d have to be a pretty unhinged individual to have owned and enjoyed everything Mr. Vega has put out over the years (in fact for a long time I had a record shopping rule that whilst solo/collaborative discs bearing Martin Rev’s name should be purchased immediately, anything involving Vega should be treated with extreme caution), but I’ve been undertaking somewhat of an accidental reassessment of his post-’77 oeuvre of recent, and am hopefully in the process of gaining a greater appreciation of the uniqueness of his voice, and of the perverse, compelling artistry that ran through all of his work, even when (as was often the case) he was making records that sounded like most listeners’ idea of hell.
The way I like to look at it is: if the still much missed Lux Interior (Satan rest his soul) summed up his stage persona as “half Elvis Presley, half Frankenstein’s Monster”, Vega – consciously or otherwise - took the idea behind this combo far further, developing a style that sounds like the wandering, unquiet spirits of Presley and Roy Orbison being evoked through some sort of unholy electronic séance, issuing tormented, incoherent fragments of rock n’ roll jive and damning indictments of the culture they see decaying around them, channelled seemingly at random through Vega’s reverb-drenched tonsils. Ghosts of an old America, crawling from the bricks, the pavement and the recording consoles, passing baleful spectral judgement on the weaponised bummer of a country that now surrounds them, crying out in weird, leather-clad despair.
Whilst some of Vega’s best moments saw him indulging in straight narrative and street level reportage, more often than not he went in for what sounds like a wholly improvisational, almost unconscious, approach that, once you get a taste for it, proves kind of extraordinary.
It’s like rock n’ roll as reduced to a series of desperate, garbled exhortations from another plain, related over a grinding, ritualistic back-beat, presented like an ancient incantation whose precise meaning has long been lost to the ages, but that can still occasionally melt without warning into pools of pure, shimmering tenderness, with Vega’s ghosts rising to the occasion in response. (“Finally, this I understand!”, the hazy greaser apparition declares, pulling a comb through his hair as he enters full seduction mode, lost in some Lynchian velvet dream of the perfect moment of love, until the stentorian reminder of modernity intrudes again via Rev’s juddering drum machine (or nearest available equivalent), forcing him into another tirade of swaggering, subway stalkin’ confusion.)
And… I could probably continue in this vein for some time. For now, let it simply be noted that, hare-brained and unapproachable though it may often seem, I believe that Vega’s body of work holds depths and mysteries that very few of us have yet managed to get a handle on. Take a deep breath and throw the dice the next time you see his name on some weird looking 7", and maybe one day we’ll catch up with him.
Viva La Vega
1. Suicide – 23 Minutes Over Brussels (excerpt) [0:00]
2. Alan Vega / Alex Chilton / Ben Vaughn – Fat City [4:45]
3. Suicide – 96 Tears (Radiation) [CBGBs, 1978] [13:00]
4. Suicide – Diamonds, Fur Coats, Champagne [16:45]
5. Alan Vega / Alex Chilton / Ben Vaughn – Too Late [20:00]
6. Suicide – Frankie Teardrop [25:40]
7. The Gories – Ghostrider [35.53]
8. Suicide – Keep your Dreams [CBGBs, 1978] [39.37]
Thursday, July 14, 2016
Dog Chocolate –
Snack Fans LP
(Upset The Rhythm)
Watching Dog Chocolate thrashing about in the basement of Deptford’s estimable Vinyl shop/café/venue recently, it struck me that they kinda, sorta, in some sense remind me of The Band. (Yes, that The Band.) An off-the-wall comparison, I’ll grant you, but bear with me, and we’ll see where we go with it.
You see, the joy of listening to both bands arises primarily from hearing a group of musicians who each have their own uniquely idiosyncratic musical personalities nonetheless coming together and, without in any way compromising their individual styles, fusing themselves into the tangled, mangled, exultant celebration of their own collaborative fellowship, each element fitting together like a puzzle whose completion seems so organic and inevitable you wonder how you could ever have contemplated the idea that the pieces didn’t fit together just so.
(Pauses for breath.)
Live, Dog Chocolate are a band who seem to be almost preternaturally skilled in the arts of flexibility and spontaneity, adapting to potentially challenging performance situations with an ease that is little short of awe-inspiring, whilst their interaction with their audience fosters a sense of positivity and inclusivity that it is difficult for even the grumpiest of souls to resent. Whilst I am obviously lacking in first-hand experience by which to make a comparison, I can easily imagine that The Band were similarly gifted in this respect, and certainly, it is a spirit of practical, adaptable music-making expertise and an indefatigable dedication to the delivery of FUN that shines through strongly in their recordings and pre-stardom concert footage.
Can you imagine a member of either band grumping about and halting the show for the sake of a broken string, an irksome audience member or an iffy power cable? No, I say, you cannot! And I would further venture perhaps to suggest that such admirable stage conduct is a much under-appreciated barometer in assessing the qualities that go towards making a band truly great.
What separates the two bands of course (well, I mean, clearly you could write an extremely lengthy list of the factors that separate the two bands, but sticking to one most pertinent to my argument here) is the fact that, whereas The Band built their chosen aesthetic upon a deep immersion in American roots music and all the comforting, ol’ timey homeliness that that entails, DC (if I may) arise from a culture that in many ways seems the polar opposite of such fusty, authentic, furniture whittlin’ type concerns, borne instead from the waste, detritus, trivial anxieties, shallow consumerism and perpetual dislocation of 21st century urban life, as filtered through the seething backyard paddling pool of obtuse art-rock and disgruntled DIY indie.
Which is to say, there is no dream of Ragtime Willy’s rockin’ chair for these restlessly imaginative “cats”, for that time has passed and gone. What we face now is more the brute reality of some plastic shelled Ikea office chair you found on the street, one wheel missing, that kills your back even to look at it, but you dragged it home a while back cos you needed a chair and now what are we supposed to, lug it all the way to the Refuse Reclamation Centre, or whatever it is they call “the tip” these days? Could we just chop it up and put a piece in the bin each week like chair serial killers, hope no one notices? But we’d need some sort of hacksaw for that, and the blade on that cheap one I bought broke almost straight away, so, fuck it, let’s just continue sitting on it anyway.
You get the picture. (You get the back ache.)
When this train of thought first occurred to me (well, not all that shit about the chair – the basic Dog Chocolate / The Band stuff), I couldn’t take it much further, as someone was headbutting my back and I had to find a safe place to dispose of my empty beer bottle, but I later found myself returning to it whilst playing the Dog Chocolate’s first proper LP ‘Snack Fans’ at excessive volume whilst walking home from Lewisham High Street in heavy rain (optimum Dog Chocolate listening conditions, I would suggest).
Whereas a high standard of bonhomie and banter lends a jovial character to the brightly hued abrasion of DC’s live appearances, the LP swiftly reveals a darker side to the band’s headspace, as dissonant, trouble-packed songs whose rough edges can so easily get lost in the shuffle on stage become fevered, nail-biting expressions of anxiety and loss of control. Suddenly, musings on random objects (‘Plastic Canoe’, ‘Wet Bandana’) and temporarily uncomfortable states of being (not knowing, being on a roundabout) – the kind of thing you’d expect a comically inclined band to shrug off as a goof, in other words – are set upon with an intensity that eventually becomes quite harrowing, as the off-hand technical proficiency behind the “someone is emptying a bin on your head” chaos of the band’s music tips over into a vicious breed of wacky, art school grindcore that really does not sound terribly healthy for either creators or listeners.
The twiddly-ness is an issue for me here, I’ll admit. Not egocentric, guitar soloy twiddling (I am *always* cool with that), but more the kind of Deerhoof/Ponytail styled hyper-active structural twiddlyness, if you get my drift. All this stop-start and sudden left turns and cascading, octo-fingered sing-songy riffs - it’s just not my bag, man. No critical judgment intended of course; it’s just that, as a person with generally low energy levels who dislikes surprises, I tend to favour pieces of music that start out doing a thing and keep on doing it until the end with a minimum of variation. [You can check back over my lists of favourite records from past years for surprisingly compelling evidence of this broad generalisation.]
Live, the more technical aspect of Dog Chocolate’s playing tends to get lost amid the clamour and good cheer. One member (Matt?) plays one of those tiny, rectangular guitars with no body (you know the ones) fed through a board of about a dozen Boss/Digitech sized pedals, and it’s a sort of running joke that we can never really hear very much of what he’s doing, his modest contributions lost beneath the gleeful puppy blurts of Rob’s straight-into-the-amp overdriven Les Paul. On record though, properly mixed, we can finally hear the two awarded equal prominence, and the full reality of their queasily off-kilter, interlocking lead lines, driven on by the staccato conjurations of drummer Jonno and the barking, shrieking gang vocals led by front-man Andrew, is often utterly bananas, to be honest.
Were I a concerned parent or elderly relative, I could easily find myself pondering darkly on the details of the horrendous lives lived by young people driven to create and enjoy music like this, not in the name of the kind of self-conscious “extremity” that drives metal and grindcore, but just as a manner of course, as a natural mode of self-expression, primarily concerned with relatable, everyday topics.
A headache-inducing trip and no mistake, I would recommend taking ‘Snack Fans’ in small doses – perhaps five or six minutes max – and I feel the results of such compressed listening could prove extremely edifying.
After all, ‘Trout Mask Replica’ forever sits as exemplar of alienating, oddball twiddling utilised as a vessel for eternal, visionary artistry that it is nonetheless practically impossible to sit through front to back, and, although there is obviously no direct comparison to be made between Dog Chocolate and The Captain (at least six maze-like barriers of chipboard and plexi-glass separate the two vis-à-vis aesthetics and ambition), DC’s more down to earth outbursts are certainly on the side of the angels vis-à-vis the pantheon of twiddley-structured hullaballoo.
THAT SAID THOUGH, perhaps I’m over-stating the twiddley aspect here somewhat.
After all, songs like ‘I Don’t Know’ and ‘Every Day Is The End Of The World..’ on this record’s first side aren’t even twiddley in the slightest. In fact they sound more than anything like the kind of giddy, hyper-active nerdy “punk” songs that Jeff Lewis used to record with his brother (and, god willing, potentially will again in future). I think it is probably more the second half of ‘Snack Fans’, with ‘Wet Bandana’ and ‘Bent Wire Situation’ and such, that set me off on that tangent. I’m sorry.
So - I don’t know where I’m going with this really… I’ve hit a dead end. I hope this doesn’t end up sitting on the top of this weblog for too long – it’ll get embarrassing.
In conclusion then: Dog Chocolate represent a phenomenal expression of contemporary culture, making delightful fun & games from the rawest essence of honesty and self-doubt. If you are planning or organising any kind of event whatsoever, you should DEFINITELY book them for it – whatever the occasion, you will not be disappointed.
If planning some of those above-suggested compressed listening blurts, my top 5 favourite songs on ‘Snack Fans’ are:
1. Plastic Canoe
2. Con Air
3. Be a Bloody River
4. I Don’t Know
5. Emotionally Buff
You can buy ‘Snack Fans’ as a splendid, extra-packed LP package, or presumably in some slightly less extra-packed alternative formats, from Upset The Rhythm. There’s some much more informative and helpful writing about the band and their music on there too, should you prefer.
Dog Chocolate can be visited on Tumblr here.
Tuesday, June 28, 2016
Nameless Mix for June 2016.
Sick of words following last week’s big you-know-what in the UK, I thought I’d fall back - as ever - on music and throw together a brief sonic response.
No mixing, no gimmicks, no chat here - just tunes. Little subtlety, much anger – hopefully some catharsis. Inevitably, we can’t offer 100% lyrical relevance, but, a few dated topical references aside, I hope the spirit of some of these songs still hits home.
More ambitious mixcloud outings are a possibility in the future if this one proves workable [I’ve not used their site before – any comments/issues, let me know], but for now, just think of this as an emergency aesthetic sticking plaster for a set of festering wounds that’s not going to start getting better any time soon.
1. The Mekons – Empire of the Senseless
2. Napalm Death – Think For a Minute
3. John Cale – Graham Greene
4. The Flying Burrito Brothers – My Uncle
5. Black Time – Problems
6. The Dirtbombs – It’s Not Fun Until they See You Cry
7. Skullflower – Fake Revolt
8. Marianne Faithfull – Broken English
9. Black Time – A Boring Day for the Boredom Boys
10. Keijo – Which Side Are You On?
11. Humousexual – Come On In
Friday, June 03, 2016
Oh boy, how this poor blog suffers. The next post here, a few months back, was due to be a report from the second ATP weekend taking place in Prestatyn in April, which we unwisely bought tickets for on the basis of adding some rock n’ roll to our pre-existing plans for an anniversary weekend by the seaside. So we all know how that turned out.
Much to pull out of that of course, with several weeks of my brain ringing with repetition, speculation and bullshit like a tennis ball clanging around a tin dome, but long sick of that by now, so no point getting into it here. Suffice to say, having been taken to the cleaners in other aspects of life once or twice in recent years, we’re at least anticipating trying to make it through 2017 without having triple figures sums torn from our paws by unscrupulous bastards. I still think Woody Guthrie was very much on point with this one when he sang (ok, muttered) “some will rob you with a six gun / some with a fountain pen”. Turns out some will wear a Fugazi t-shirt and put together a nice concert poster too, so be careful out there folks.
Subsequently, the post here was going to be a weird quasi-travelogue piece cataloguing every piece of music or cultural ephemera we encountered whilst instead spending the aforementioned weekend in Falmouth, incorporating ruminations on the death of Prince, which circumstances dictated we had to come to terms with solely through the means of hotel TV and pub staff gossip, devoid of access to shared online grieving, wiki fact-checking or any opportunities to actually hear more than a brief snatch of his music on the News at 10.
I would actually still quite like to write about that, but as ever, life gets in the way and the idea of actually finding time to sit down and bang out such ruminative type shit into MS Word becomes laughable, when there are still emails to answer and accounts to file. Now the moment has passed (I mean, not even I care what fleeting memories I can dredge up from six whole weeks ago, what chance do you have?) - so what next?
Well we’re off on another water-logged holiday tomorrow, and I’ll be neck-deep in work when we get back, so I wouldn’t hold your breath. [I know, I know – gainfully employed with paid leave, woe is me.]
Turns out I haven’t actually posted anything about contemporary music thus far this year, so let’s fall back on a few quick shout-outs and reminders before I go home to pack.
If you’re looking for high quality musical self-expression created by people living in more-or-less that same world as you & I, may I recommend the new long players from City Yelps, Dog Chocolate, T.O.Y.S, and, shifting the lens toward a whole other far-gone world, the characteristically blinding tour-funding download release from Blown Out (no surprises there then). Meanwhile, I’m not sure that The Still quite live in the same world that I do, given that they’re a shifting collective of improv-happy Berlin based session musos incorporating The Necks’ Chris Abrams, but I do know that their LP on Bronze Rat is a stone groove of self-explanatory cinematic loveliness.
On the live front, Nots from Memphis and Chroma from Barcelona both proved too f-ing cool for school (in an entirely positive sense), whilst the duo of Makoto Kawabata and Afri Rampo’s Pikachu predictably knocked it outta the park at Café Oto last Monday. Was edifying to see a heavily jet-lagged Useless Eaters pull a decent set out of the jaws of total disaster at some shithole in Camden the other week, was great to finally check in with The Heads again in April, and, best of all, was a real privilege to tag along on Flemmings’ tour for a few days and witness Grey Hairs undertaking a full strength home-town set in convivial circumstances. Great bands, lovely people, and crucially, none of them owe me £500.
Reissues & old records-wise, my mind has found itself repeatedly bent out of shape both by the delights of some early Chrome records, and by the recently reissued Alan Vega / Alex Chilton / Ben Vaughn collab on Light in the Attic. (Basically a massive, meandering mid-'90s jam session presented as an album, the latter could initially be mistaken for more-than-you-ever-needed-to-hear of Alan doing his Suicide thing over a trad gtr/bass/drums backing, but, as with just about everything these peculiar and gifted gentlemen turned their hands to, swiftly proceeds to become a lot more than the sum of its parts.) That aside, it’s been Miles, more Miles, Hawkwind (always Hawkwind), High Rise, Thin Lizzy, James Brown, Howlin’ Wolf and “Motown Chartbusters 6” (featuring an extremely unlikely Roger Dean insectoid spaceship on the cover) as far as the eye can see. Oh, and lets’ not forget Finders Keepers exultantly ramshackle collection of a bunch of library cuts and dialogue extracts from Jess Franco’s Les Demons too – tres bien, if you will.
Oh yeah, and we went to a soul night in Falmouth too – it was bloody brilliant.
As ever, watch this space. Updates as and when.
Wednesday, April 06, 2016
I Can’t See For Miles:
Rock Music as a Racial War Zone, 1968-74.
For a brief window at the drag-end of the 1960s and the trudge into the early ‘70s, the now-accepted narrative of rock n’ roll (and subsequently, Rock Music) as a tale of black musical forms repurposed by white musicians could, if viewed from the right angle, have seemed a lot less certain than it does to us today.
Admittedly, the ‘colonial’ aspect of rock n’ roll (a project whose trajectory must still have seemed almost accidental to its largely well-meaning participants, I hasten to add) was already well established by 196X. By most accounts, it was initiated the moment Elvis made the scene, and of course it gained a significant boost in the early/mid ‘60s through the ascendency of British r’n’b, culminating in the black-face pantomime of vocalists like Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart, and the exaggerated buffoonery of the Clapton/Beck school of blues-busting lead guitar worship.
(As an aside, is it merely coincidental do you think that these traditions developed at the same time that the retrospectively mortifying Black & White Minstrel Show continued to be rapturously received by British TV & theatre audiences? Whilst the rock musicians may appear more sympathetic to us in their earnest reverence for “the real thing”, wasn’t the culture that both legitimised and celebrated their desire to recreate it as parody, often at the direct expense of contemporary black music [see for instance the oft-overlooked aggro between hippies and reggae-affiliated skinheads in late ‘60s London], essentially the same?)
So far, so familiar. But, if we go back to ’68-’70, my contention is that the finality of this black-to-white trajectory was not yet set in stone. And the lightning bolt that came to put a big fucking crack in that stone (if you will) was of course Jimi Hendrix.
In terms of the racial dynamic within rock n’ roll at the time, Hendrix very much represented an ‘alchemical marriage’ – a too-good-to-be-true messianic figure, here to right all wrongs, unite the tribes and take everyone to the next level. With his naively sincere appreciation of Dylan, The Beatles and even Clapton, he offered an olive branch to the honky, whilst the quote-unquote “authentic” grit and fury of the blues that was perceived as his birthright continued to boil beneath every note he played.
With THESIS and ANTITHESIS of the ol’ Leninist dialectic thus duly covered furthermore, the golden boy actually proceeded to go the distance and give us SYNTHESIS. Taking on board the one true innovation fostered by the British guitar cult – the utilisation of excessive volume, feedback and pure noise – he immediately pushed it further, and explored it more creatively and excitingly, than any of his fussier, more technique-fixated contemporaries, establishing a new benchmark for all future rock guitar, wherein a level of distortion that had previously only been hinted at by the most unhinged and eccentric of his predecessors subsequently became the norm. (It is here, needless to say, that the obsessive pursuit of pre-amp processing and tonal ‘effects’ that now consumes approximately 98% of the time and budget of the average white ‘indie’ guitarist has its origins.)
Whilst Jimi Hendrix was thus the natural spearhead for a black reclamation of rock n’ roll culture in the late 1960s, he was far from the only figure pushing in this direction,
Figures as titanic as James Brown, Sly Stone and Aretha Franklin were all busy mixing draughts of heavier, angrier, more ‘rock’ influenced sound into their music, that, along with Norman Whitfield’s bold productions for The Temptations and Edwin Starr at Motown, created a nameless, sprawling mass of vast potency that pushed far beyond the commercially defined parameters of ‘soul’, but was not yet fenced off by the exclusionary shelving tag of ‘funk’. (In the music industry as in ceremonial magic, to name something is to control and confine it.)
At the same time, even the re-emergence of originators such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley and John Lee Hooker – returning like absent kings to collect the keys to their kingdom from the denizens of psychedelic ballrooms – must have spawned hope and expectation. (After all, look at the transformative rumpus those guys casually kicked up back in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Who in 1969 was to say they couldn’t do it again, and reap appropriate financial rewards into the bargain?)
For the hopeful onlooker, particularly in the vexed climate of the post-MLK USA, the prospect of black America finally regaining the driving seat of Western popular music must have seemed intoxicating.
One such onlooker, peering enviously through the fronds from a camp too fusty and marginal to yet join this optimistic bacchanal, was the ascetic, warlock-like figure of Miles Davis.
On one level, Davis’s blatant attempts to mimic Hendrix, both before and after the latter’s death, could appear rather pathetic to the casual observer. Replacing his earlier wardrobe of impeccably tailored suits with outlandishly garish ‘psychedelic’ attire and feeding his trumpet through a wah-wah pedal, the increasingly emaciated older man could easily have become a laughing stock – were it not for the fact that the music he created as a result of his infatuation with Hendrix and the other ambitious black mega-stars remains so indelibly powerful that to belittle its creator in any way whatsoever would be an act of shameful cultural ignorance.
On first spin, ‘Bitches Brew’ (Davis’s chief statement of intent vis-à-vis the new music that the post-Hendrix era emboldened him to instigate) is not a platter that’s going to blow the mind of many rock fans straight out of the gate. Indeed, in spite of the voluminous litanies of critical praise that the album has attracted over the years, helping to smuggle it into our homes and ears, cloaked by its proximity the rest of the canonical major label ‘classics’, it is a record that functions more like a slow release gas canister or a buried piece of hypnotic suggestion, lurking quietly on CD shelves and in mp3 libraries, waiting patiently for an opportunity to immerse the unsuspecting listener in its ungraspable aural sorcery.
Rich in congas, electric pianos and other recognised signifiers of lameness, it is also, in keeping with Davis’s work as a whole, entirely lacking in the kind of fire-breathing, truth-blurting sax epiphanies that us ruffian rock fans typically gravitate towards when dipping our toes in the jazz canon. An arch piece of contrarianism, ‘Bitches Brew’ presents the novice listener with what initially seems to be several massive, patience-testing chunks of featureless, texturally unfashionable nothingness.
Pointedly lacking in both the technical pyrotechnics of bop and the pungent badassery of black rock and funk, it is liable to slip ever further down the ‘to listen’ pile, ready to emerge again, perhaps years later, to test what we have learned in the interim.
What the listener will need to have learned, of course, is that, to some people (many of whom drive bulldozers), a rainforest looks like nothingness. As inscrutable as it may initially seem, once you have let the texture of ‘Bitches Brew’ sink into your consciousness, it opens up to reveal what must surely be one of the richest sound-worlds ever captured via the conventional recording of traditional instruments.
How many of us dopes have, at some point in our lives, whacked the side of our skulls and proclaimed, “by heavens, this is an AMBIENT album!”, letting the fact that it was laid down and filed so very far away from the time and place in which are teachers tell us Brian Eno and some German guys invented that concept slowly sink in.
Buzzing, hissing, swishing, dripping, hooting and shaking, driven on by a monster groove whose pulse seems to owe more to the breeze and the tides than to Max Roach or the JBs, the instruments wrangled by Miles and his collaborators on ‘Bitches Brew’ form a kind of self-contained eco-system that reminds me of nothing so much as the fantastical jungle paintings of Henri Rousseau.
And if all this sounds a bit hippie-ish, well, as per Eno’s later formalisation of the concept, an ‘ambient’ record can effectively act as a cloak – a kind of signal-jamming encryption beneath which more challenging ideas can be introduced and exchanged. In the case of ‘Bitches Brew’, the rainforest may represent a kind of stasis, but if so, it is a stasis built on perpetual motion, full of sudden movement, cacophonous upset and, for the incautious tourist, danger.
Once you get deeper into it in fact, the barely suppressed violence beneath the placid exterior of ‘Bitches Brew’ becomes impossible to ignore. Like hunting animals, the lead instruments skitter around, leap and retreat, ever wary, avoiding confrontation. The playing of all the musicians is wired and permanently on edge, recognizing that, under the watchful eye of Miles, their conduct must at all times be exemplary, but also painfully aware that they’ll bring down an unwanted showdown the moment they dare poke their heads above the undergrowth.
Creating a sense of simmering, unrelieved tension that passes undiminished through weird passages of shimmering tonal beauty, the overall effect of this atmosphere is utterly enervating, and remains unique in my experience as a listener.
Extending this inherently questionable rainforest metaphor further, it is difficult not to envision Miles himself as the good ol’ King of the Jungle figure - the big cat stalking his prey, the.. hey, why not go all the way with this shit and just call him a PANTHER, shall we?
Through the preceding decades of his jazz career, Miles had been fostering an atmosphere wherein, when he plays a note, people shut up and listen – and by the time of ‘..Brew’, he had it down to perfection. For his fans at the time, his actual playing on the record wouldn’t have constituted anything revelatory - his lines are as minimal, as painstakingly considered and as wracked by loss and frustration as his pre-existing legend demands. What’s new here is rather the experience of hearing how they hold their own against this strange, new electrified background, cutting through the undergrowth like a stalking predator, lethargic but deadly, pushing the twittering chaos that surrounds him deep into the background.
Although Miles Davis frequently claimed to operate a colour-blind recruitment policy when selecting his band members, the feverish obsession with race that increasingly seemed to consume him as he got older belies this, and one name that of course sticks out like a sore thumb on the sleeve of ‘Bitches Brew’ is that of John McLaughlin on electric guitar.
Assuming he ever deemed to speak about it at all, Davis’s decision-making process in selecting McLaughlin remains blurry. I don’t have the relevant biographies and what-not to hand, but the question immediately springs to mind is: wouldn’t he have rather got Hendrix? Did he try? Was Hendrix unavailable, or uninterested? Or, more interestingly for your purposes here, did Miles actually want to avoid being drawn into some kind of epic ego battle that could have worked against their overall musical/racial cause of both musicians? [Of course, McLaughlin had already played on ‘In a Silent Way’ a year earlier, so Miles probably already had him on the payroll, if you want a spoil-sport Occam’s Razor explanation. – Ed.]
Anyway, we got McLaughlin, and his inclusion on ‘Bitches Brew’ proved a stroke of genius the like of which even Miles himself could probably never have anticipated. A nimble-fingered scion of the same British blues lineage that gave us Clapton et al (and who would soon of course go on to take virtuosic bombast to head-spinning new extremes in Mahavishnu Orchestra), one can easily imagine McLaughlin being set up as a ‘rube’ by Miles on ‘Bitches Brew’ – a target to be taken down.
He might well have been expected to enter the tense, electrically charged forest atmosphere of the album like a blundering great white hunter, his bright, bold playing tootling away a mile a minute, saying nothing much beyond “look – rock guitar on a jazz record!”, just waiting for Miles to put horn to lips and deliver the smackdown – a single, sonorous note that would have Big John, like everyone else, quaking in his boots as the Panther treads softly through the grass.
Thankfully for us all though, and to McLaughlin’s eternal credit, that’s not the way things panned out at all. Clearly hip to the heads-down wariness of his band-mates, he slips into the fabric of ‘Pharaoh’s Dance’ as subtly as a ninja, adding a gauze-thin layer of woody, textural fret-scrabbling that demands no retaliation. Growing in confidence as the album progresses, it’s only on the second disc that he really breaks out, by which point he has learned to expertly mimic his potential aggressor, adding piercing shards of hi-end overdrive into furtive solos that feel as incisive and knottily cerebral as those of his band leader.
Surprised and, one hopes, impressed by his guitarist’s gumption (he even named a song after him for god’s sake – not the sorted of thing Miles “everyone’s a motherfucker cept me” Davis did just for laffs), Miles responds to McLaughlin in a spirit of dialogue rather than rank-pulling aggression, and the pair’s spark-spitting interplay across the red skies of ‘Spanish Key’ and ‘Miles Runs The Voodoo Down’ - more an impassioned summit on revolutionary street-battle tactics than a mere “frank exchange of blues” - is the final rocket that puts ‘Bitches Brew’ up amongst the gods – an untouchable achievement whose poker-faced refusal to yield to conventional criticism makes it forever fresh as it searches out new ears.
Miles and McLaughlin would of course go on further build their musical relationship through the louder, ballsier and even more magnificently rock-damaged triumvirate of ‘Jack Johnson’, ‘Live Evil’ and ‘On The Corner’ over the next few years, but it is ‘..Brew’ that provides the pivotal moment – a form of “fusion” whose boundaries extend far beyond the mere mash-up of rock and jazz tropes that later came to define that genre, and a far more important step forward from Hendrix’s initial alchemical synthesis than would likely have been achieved had Miles instead just rocked up at Jimi’s place to record an hour of fuzz-blasting power jams.
The triumph of ‘Bitches Brew’ and its follow-ups provide just one pertinent example of the wider growth of utopian, inter-racial ‘fusion’ music that briefly flourished between about 1968 and 1971. Watch just about any concert film or music doc from this era and you will find some evidence of the new breed of racially mixed big band jam units who were doing the rounds post-Woodstock, both inspired by, and no doubt providing inspiration to, Miles’s electric bands and Hendrix’s own short-lived “Band of Gypsies”.
From Tony Williams Lifetime to The Electric Flag, Buddy Miles Express and Eric Burden & War, the black reclamation of Rock was on the move, positing a two-way traffic of ideas (perhaps even extending to a three, four or five way junction once Hispanic and Asian influences were thrown into the mix), and anticipating the day when entirely non-white ‘rock bands’ might begin to appear on North American stages, shaking – if perhaps ever so gently at first – the foundations of the USA’s historically segregated music industry.
Which sets the stage, needless to say, for what we are sadly obliged to call The White Fight Back. Whilst your correspondent is still a little too sane/conventional [delete as applicable] in his thinking to go in for the full-on conspiratorial mind-set with regard to this rarely acknowledged phenomenon, the inexplicable ascendance of purely ‘white’ East Coast rock in the early ‘70s, combined with lizard-like ivory tower racism hinted at in passing in numerous memoirs of the 1970s New York hipster / record exec elite, make it difficult to discount such possibilities entirely.
Bogus as the aims of this theoretical project must undoubtedly have been however, it is ironic to note that the process of surgically separating Rock Music from its black origins had already been instigated - to novel and exhilarating effect – by several of the best independently-minded white rock bands to emerge from the late 1960s.
Iggy Pop has oft been want to describe his work with The Stooges as “white, suburban, delinquent music”, and indeed this concise summation is more than borne out by the group’s 1969 self-titled LP, wherein brothers Ron and Scott Asheton pointedly refuse to imitate the syncopations and ‘licks’ of blues and black dance music.
Born jointly from cultural honesty, youthful bullheadedness and pure technical primitivism, this refusal (highly unusual amongst the band’s peers) saw the brothers’ guitar riffs and drum patterns simplified into an assaultive, one dimensional grind, expanding the too-dumb-for-the-blues, building block chords of the Kinks’ ‘You Really Got Me’ and The Troggs’ ‘Wild Thing’ into an irresistibly thuggish template that went on to largely define the sound of the self-conscious Punk Rock bands that began to spring up a decade or so later.
Meanwhile, very much at the other end of the innocence/experience spectrum, we find The Velvet Underground, who, tiring of the John Lee Hooker-indebted urban boogie around which their sound had initially coalesced, instigated a conscious attempt to break away from what they now saw as the tasteless and clichéd mimicry of black forms.
Although founding members Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison had initially boasted that, as college students in Boston, they spent their time frequenting wrong-side-of-the-tracks r’n’b clubs where other whites were too scared to venture, by the time the Velvets came to record their second LP in 1968, so the story goes, Reed was actually threatening to fine band members who dared play blues licks in rehearsal.
The extraordinary sound the band created as a result of this decision can be heard on ‘White Light / White Heat’ - a screeching, cathertic tirade of confusion and torment that seems to represent the trauma of embryonic white ‘rock’ being forcibly separated from its mother (black rhythm and blues), after which we hear the troubled child struggling to survive and find its own identity amid an intimidating world filled with nasty things like ‘art’ and ‘literature’.
After the unsustainable, end-of-the-line boogie which literally collapses at the conclusion of the album’s title track, this bloody separation is dramatised in metaphor during the surgical nightmare of ‘Lady Godiva’s Operation’, and, by the time we reach the near arrhythmic noise freak-out of ‘I Heard Her Call My Name’ and the stentorian anti-groove of ‘Sister Ray’, the poor kid is shivering in an orphanage, wondering what the future holds.
[The author’s attention has been drawn to the fact that ‘I Heard Her Call My Name’ in fact goes full circle by taking inspiration from such cutting edge black musicians as Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman, but he contends that trying to fit this into his theory makes his head hurt, and he doesn’t want to think about it right now. – Ed.]
A year or so later, the scars of this traumatic birth appeared to have healed, and The Velvet Underground seemed entirely at ease with their ‘white’ musical identity, recording a self-titled third LP whose mixture of gently strummed, clean-toned guitars, wallflower-ish, sexless rhythms and literate, emotionally resonant lyrics inadvertently set the blueprint for the innumerable multitude of “indie-pop” bands who now delight the globe with their scruffily collegiate stylings.
Whilst this initial establishment of a non-blues based rock lineage was artistically valid and formally innovative however, it was when these achievements began to filter up the food chain to the money-men that the trouble, inevitably, began.
Somewhere, (behind glass-fronted windows and amid attractive Scandinavian furnishings, I would like to think), certain desk jockeys and record pluggers who had presumably made hay via the ‘uptown’ r’n’b sound of Phil Spector and the Brill Building began to get wise. Back in the early ‘60s, the natural enemies of these guys had been the regional independent labels responsible for pushing “wilder” black music onto the market, and, whether through necessity or mere habit, the instinct to shut down such insubordination remained.
By the end of the decade, the demands of a newly emergent ‘rock’ audience conditioned to revere the performance of “authentic” American music had made it almost obligatory for white rock bands to swear fealty to ‘the blues’ if they were to achieve widespread success on the festival and concert circuit.
On the West Coast, the music industry had managed to bypass this problem by cultivating acts who substituted equally “authentic” (but reassuringly white) folk and country influences for those of rhythm and blues, but elsewhere across the country, the post-Woodstock listeners’ apparently unquenchable thirst for ever more aggressive and indulgent ‘blues’ performances necessitated a more urgent and comprehensive solution, lest the power-house ‘fusion’ combos listed earlier in this article should gain a permanent foothold from which to spread their dangerous integrationist ideologies.
The eventual solution settled upon by the East Coast industry was so ingenious in its counter-intuitive sneakiness, it should have been awarded some sort of clandestine prize for such things (perhaps handed out each summer at Bohemian Grove?), and the execution of their plan can most clearly be seen by examining the meteoric rise to success of their chief instrument, the ironically named Grand Funk Railroad - a blues-rock power trio who formed in Flint, Michigan in 1969 and signed with Capital Records the same year.
Although they are largely remembered today merely as the punchline of some jokes on The Simpsons and for inspiring the name of the Butthole Surfers’ dog, Grand Funk were a bone fide big deal in the early 1970s. Pushed by a management team whose Mafia-like persuasiveness was rivalled only by that of Led Zeppelin, the band’s mealy-mouthed “we’re-all-together-now-brothers-and-sisters” hippie generalities were propagated through every possible medium, from giant billboards to tie-ins with fast food and soft drinks franchises, and in the summer of 1971, Grand Funk Railroad became the first popular music group since The Beatles to sell out New York’s Shea Stadium, breaking the fab four’s attendance record a mere 72 hours after tickets went on sale.
Whether anticipated by organisers or otherwise, these events became a full scale, festival-style ‘happening’, as legions of the band’s field hippie following trekked across NY’s perilous transport network, establishing makeshift camps in the vicinity of the stadium and generally having whatever passed for a gay old time amid such Quaalude-crunching hair farmers. The main difference of course being that, unlike at Woodstock, these ‘free spirits’ were each paying top dollar for admission, merchandise and refreshments – a development that was no doubt keenly noted within the industry.
Although the music of Grand Funk Railroad (as best experienced on their 1970 ‘Grand Funk Live Album’ double LP) is ostensibly rooted in blues tradition, thus catering to the expectations of the contemporary rock audience, in actuality it does an extremely effective job of *sabotaging* its own purported lineage.
Boiling down the 12-bar-turnaround / riffs n’ solos structure of white blues into an utterly monotonous, knuckleheaded drag of undifferentiated sonic gruel, Grand Funk’s sound seems purposefully designed to make the causal listener – even if he or she is on one level enjoying the music – question the artistic validity of the form to such an extent that, if a laboratory test were carried out, participants who had listened to the entirety of ‘Grand Funk Live Album’ several times in succession would no doubt be liable to express a desire to never again hear anyone singing “the blues” for the remainder of their lives.
As might well have been expected, critics responded to the runaway popularity of Grand Funk Railroad with consternation. Unable to explain the public’s enthusiasm for such ugly and degenerate music through any other means, many writers simply fell back on attacking the band’s audience, who were characterised as deluded drug abusers, too out of their mind on cheap alcohol and what were at the time known as ‘downers’ to sensibly judge the merits of the recordings and concerts they were experiencing. This cruel slight (which was also regularly leveled, even less fairly, at fans of Black Sabbath) has remained so central to the critical perception of Grand Funk that I even used it myself a few paragraphs ago, just for a cheap laugh and to help keep the tradition going.
(Although Lenny Kaye’s definitive article for Creem on Grand Funk’s Shea Stadium concert is unfortunately behind a paywall, a fair picture of the press’s dismissive attitude to the band can be gleaned by consulting Timothy Ferris’s ‘Grand Funk Railroad: Is This Band Terrible?’ for Rolling Stone, available here.)
Far from damaging the band’s commercial prospects however, such snobbish dismissals only served to fan the flames of their insurgent popularity. From the point of view of Grand Funk’s management and the more sinister forces who may or may not have leaned upon them, it was all part of the plan. By turning their back on critical favour, Grand Funk allowed themselves to be marketed as “the people’s band”, cynically exploiting an ideal previously embodied by the far more socially committed and musically enduring Californian group Creedence Clearwater Revival (and, further afield, by such genuinely antiestablishment bands as The Deviants and Hawkwind in the UK).
This easy shuck allowed the industry to pull off one of the most bravura examples to date of the same unsavoury maneuver they had been working since the ‘50s to deal with potentially troublesome rock n’ rollers, and that they continue to fall back on to this day: namely, using media smoke signals and carefully manicured public image to create the illusion that a particular act “means something profound” to its punters, even as the musicians in question make no articulate or coherent statement about anything whatsoever.
In retrospect, Grand Funk’s music is not without merit, and, despite their absence from official histories, they maintain a steady cult following amongst members of the ‘stoner’, ‘doom’ and ‘noise’ rock sub-cultures, who appreciate the group’s hypnotic use of “heavy” low-end frequencies and brutish fuzz-tone effects.
The masochistic urges that drive enjoyment of these latter-day sub-genres however were still alien to the vast majority of listeners and commentators in the early 1970s, and, as the band’s early enthusiasts gradually outgrew their gallo wine & horse tranq binges and found they were required to get a goddamned job by the system to which their hard-rockin’ champions had so conspicuously failed to offer an alternative, the perception that Grand Funk’s strain of full strength blues-rock represented something aberrant, retrogressive and excessive, to be avoided at all costs by respectable citizens, soon became universal.
By 1973, Grand Funk Railroad were beginning to move away from blues-rock, taking what has been described as a more “radio friendly, pop-rock direction” and earning their highest chart placings to date thanks to the more nuanced guiding hand of producer Todd Rundgren.
Elsewhere, bands as disparate as Blue Oyster Cult, Aerosmith and Alice Cooper had appeared on the scene, all making careers for themselves playing an arch, self-conscious form of white heavy rock almost completely devoid of discernable black influence.
(Would it be in poor taste for me to imply at this point that the catalogue of drug problems, accidents and personal tragedies that dogged the careers of many more explicitly blues-based popular American rock bands during the 1970s [cf: The Allman Brothers Band, Canned Heat, Lynyrd Skynyrd] may have been something other than mere coincidence…? Probably.)
Though the Brit behemoths (Zep, Who, Stones) ostensibly kept the flame of black inheritance alight in the USA’s arenas, they did so through the by now thoroughly familiar means of absurdist parody, employing exaggerated put-ons that were increasingly accepted by listeners unschooled in the esoteric history of black music as ‘belonging’ to those bands.
By 1974, the idea of rock n’ roll having grown from black culture had been rendered entirely invisible to younger, suburban fans. Throughout the USA, “Southern Rock” bands now presented weak variations on funk and blues as if they were some kind of ancestral cowboy inheritance, whilst practitioners of actual funk and soul strained against the boundaries their racially-designated genre signifiers had consigned them to, commanded by the industry to be happy with their relatively meagre slice of the pie. (If James Brown was indeed “the hardest working man in showbiz”, his exertions must have seemed a sad exercise in furiously re-harvesting the same narrow furrow by the mid-1970s.)
Soon thereafter, the East Coast music industry delivered its final coup de grace in the form of Kiss – a supposedly ‘rebellious’, teen-orientated rock group, complete with their own cult-ish, quasi-military organisation, whose utterly WASP-ish music and myopic lyrical concerns were so firmly rooted in an acceptance of white, middle-class suburban conformity that they made the car and girl based tantrums of Chuck Berry and The Beach Boys sound like blood-thirsty declarations of bolshevik outrage by comparison.
By the time enraged ‘rock fans’ set out to literally burn the newly demarcated ghetto of “disco” in 1979, having apparently taken umbrage with the music’s perceived message of racial and sexual equality and lack of “authentic” musicality, the noble campaign to ‘even the keel’ of American musical culture that had originally been instigated by Miles Davis and others inspired by the example of Jimi Hendrix was so totally over that no one except Miles even bothered with the shouting.
Ever the seer, Davis must have seen this defeat coming earlier than most. Even if he couldn’t have anticipated the crushing totality of the record industry’s near-Stalinist extermination of the integrationist cause, one imagines he must have seen the writing on the wall as early as 1970, when his tight-as-a-whip electric band found themselves playing second fiddle to the slumberous cowboy music of Neil Young & Crazy Horse at the Fillmore East, and this failure to ‘break through’ perhaps became the primary contributor to the legendary cruelty, resentment and anger that fuelled the musician throughout his final decades.
As in any pivotal military engagement, success was at one point so near, yet remained so far. Even with Jimi out of the picture, all it would have taken was one more big figure, too awesome to ignore, to turn the powers-that-be on their heads. One blazing innovator who refused to be lined up and filed under funk & disco, and a manager or two with the balls to break the barricades and get him or her into the charts. If only Prince had been born a decade earlier, if only Michael Jackson had punched his dad in the chops aged seventeen and got into punk, everything could have been different…
Accompanied by such “if only’s..”, Miles saw out his remaining years in the increasingly marginalized jazz community like Napoleon on St Helena, as ‘rock’ sailed its unfortunate course without him.
Now suddenly, here we are in 2016, and anyone with an interest in the potential of electric guitars played in rhythm is expected to have an opinion on Jack White. No wonder we’re either hiding behind a wall of doom metal or scouring the “world music” racks in search of some reissued Eritrean with a fuzz box.
The author would like to make clear that, in spite potentially dismissive comments used for rhetorical effect in the above essay, he personally enjoys the music of Blue Oyster Cult, Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Alice Cooper, Chuck Berry, The Beach Boys, The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, The Faces, Mahavishnu Orchestra, The Kinks, The Troggs, The Yardbirds and Grand Funk Railroad. Eric Clapton and Kiss can go suck it, however.
Sunday, January 17, 2016
The Best Records I Heard in 2015:
1. Blown Out –
Jet Black Hallucinations &
Planetary Engineering LPs
Planetary Engineering LPs
(Golden Mantra / Oaken Palace)
In some ways, my awarding the top spot this year to a Mike Vest bands is more of a token thing than anything else – an acknowledgement of the fact that my relationship with the voluminous quantities of music put up for sale by this modern day renaissance man of ear-splitting guitar noise is somewhat akin to that of Homer Simpson and the “lady, he’s putting my kids through college” hotdog vendor.
Maybe other listeners may beg to differ, but for my tastes, between Mr Vest’s work with Bong, 11 Paranoias, Haikai No Ku, Drunk in Hell, new outfit Melting Hand and numerous other more tangential/one-off projects, there is scarcely a weak link to be found. If not exactly reinventing the wheel at any point, Vest’s understanding and apparent mastery of numerous previously established modes of heavy rock/psych/noise guitar is a remarkable – and more to the point, hugely enjoyable – achievement, making his Visual Volume web store an almost inexhaustible resource for those of us who are more or less constantly in search of stuff that sounds a bit like Skullflower, Les Rallizes Denudes, White Heaven, Earth, Chrome, Burning Witch or whatever other specialised flavour of six string extremism you’re currently in the mood for, more than likely.
That said though, 2015’s two Blown Out LPs are nonetheless very much on another plain vis-à-vis their position as nigh-on perfect exemplars of the space-rock idiom. Building on the foundations laid by 2014’s Drifting Way Out Between Suns, both of these albums see Blown Out’s rhythm section (John Michael Headly / bass, Matt Baty / drums) coming to the fore, laying down a loose, muscular and thoroughly blissful backbeat, pitched somewhere between ‘Funhouse’ and ‘Jack Johnson’, that presents Vest’s perma-stoned, echo and fuzz drenched interstellar excursions to their best possible advantage (think maybe Dave Brock on ‘Space Ritual’ if he totally forgot to return to the riff and just went way out there).
Beyond that, there’s not really a great deal of point in picking out individual tracks or moments amid this morass of highly refined jamage, other than to perhaps advise potential consumers that whilst ‘Jet Black Hallucinations’ contains the heavier, more propulsive, riff-based jams, ‘Planetary Engineering’s first side ventures more into the abstract, favouring hypnotic, trudging tempos and enhanced by a plethora of overdubs and appropriately trippy ‘outer space’ studio effects (subtly applied, mind you), tempting me to add the first Ash Ra Tempel LP to my above roll-call of psych guitar heavies, whilst the B side returns to ‘the riff’ with great force and directness, sounding perhaps like the awesome mega-jam that a band like Nebula or Spirit Caravan might end their set with in an alternate world where they were considerably cooler and more daring than they are in our own reality. Then it goes into a kind of extended ‘breakdown’ section that sounds, inevitably, like something off ‘Space Ritual’, and all is right with the world.
And, that’s that really. No great emotional significance or existential revelations to impart here, just a reminder that, when I’m sitting at home of an evening doing whatever, I currently enjoy this kind of music more than just about anything else in the world of sound organised by humans. If you know what I’m talking about it the paragraphs above, get on it. If you don’t, or simply don’t care – no matter. Let’s get suited up, hit the escape pod, and see what 2016 has to offer. More of this kind of thing probably, but I’ll try not to bore you with it too much.
Listen and buy from Mike Vest/Visual Volume via Bandcamp.
Tuesday, January 12, 2016
Thoughts on Bowie:
Wretched Confessions of an Almost-Fan.
Well, what can you say? More specifically, what can I say?
I’ve set myself a precedent here for doing posts of this nature on the occasion of significant deaths, so can’t really bow out of this one.
Well, given the mountain of material we’ll shortly be chewing over from massive fans and self-proclaimed experts (for DB must be second only to BD when it comes to those guys) when the quote-unquote “music community” picks itself up off the floor over the next few days, I thought it might prove interesting to throw together a few thoughts from a… well, not a ‘non-fan’ exactly. Certainly not a hater or resenter or non-enjoyer, but just, well, y’know, he’s never been a big deal for me, the way he has for so many others. An ‘almost-fan’ let’s say. A ‘tipping-over-the-edge-into-fandom-not-quite-there-yet’ sort of deal.
Could such a piece be interesting? Well it probably wouldn’t be for most artists, but the sheer breadth and depth of Bowie’s hold over popular music is such that he still had an effect – dozens and hundreds of little effects, direct and second hand, all overlapping – on my enjoyment of music, and indeed yours too. Those of sufficiently wide listening who claims otherwise are probably either lying to themselves or playing an aggressively contrarian a-hole position for reasons best known to themselves. So…. Yeah. I have no particular conclusions to make here, but perhaps these formless reflections might amount to something. Let’s just see how it goes.
One thing you realise as you grow older as a music fan is that hating Bowie, like hating The Beatles, is a mugs game. The more time you waste bellyaching about their allegedly unjustified ubiquity, the more untenable your position becomes, as warm memories of melodies, lyrical flourishes, funny ideas and likeable images flood the minds of those you seek to convince, whilst your continued banging on rings hollow. Do us all a favour, leave it behind with the craftily rolled bedroom spliffs, UCAS forms and MOR emo-rock. ‘Suffragette City’ is on the radio. Drop your defenses and just smile, you twat. Life’s too short, etc.
Through teens & early’20s, I was disdainful of Bowie. I know that for many people (especially those raised in the ‘70s of course) he acted as a “gateway drug” in much the same way that Sonic Youth did for me, bridging mainstream-ish pop/rock and more challenging/underground concerns - but I came at him from the opposite angle. Already familiar with The Velvet Underground, Kraftwerk, Iggy, Syd Barrett et al by the time I began consciously considering his music, I largely saw him as some kind of magpie-like art-rock Machiavelli, cherry-picking ideas from all my messy, misunderstood faves and watering them down for tidy public consumption, reaping misappropriated plaudits for godlike originality from the uninformed in the process.
The fact that, at the time, he seemed largely concerned with making decidedly iffy ‘cyberpunk’ drum n’ bass tracks and telling everyone how much he liked The Pixies a decade after they split up only served to fuel this narrative, and as such I closed the case.
When, sometime around the turn of the millennium, NME did a big thing voting him “the most influential artist of all-time” or somesuch, and someone sent in a letter the next week saying “Sorry, all we had him down with is fucking up the production on ‘Raw Power’, signed, The Kids” I not only found it highly amusing, but more or less agreed.
The thing that changed my mind, basically, was song-writing. Specifically, a scratched up double A-side of ‘Life On Mars’ b/w ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ that I pulled out of my Mum’s long-neglected record collection whilst bored and in search of interesting stuff one summer. Now, say what you like about the big picture, but you can’t argue with material like that. Both songs remain shiver-up-the-spine-inducing to me to this day, not due to any memories or associations or whatnot associated with them, but just in and of themselves, as compositions and recordings. He wasn’t copping anyone else’s moves (as far as I know) when he sat down and knocked those two out, and even the most embittered Bowiephobe would be hard pressed to deny that they display the touch of an exceptionally gifted writer/arranger/performer.
I further began to contemplate the idea that DB was pretty damn good at this song-writing lark when considering the credits and background to an album I liked (and still like) a great deal, Iggy Pop’s ‘The Idiot’. What swiftly became clear upon closer examination was that this album was a Pop/Bowie joint through and through, with Dave’s generosity toward his troubled buddy being the only thing that allowed the Ig to take sole credit. In fact, with Bowie sharing a writing credit on every tune, producing, arranging, probably selecting and briefing the musicians and god knows what else, ‘The Idiot’ is arguably about 75% his gig, with Iggy merely contributing some lyrics, vocals and a slightly more nebulous sense of ‘attitude’.
Possibly not the most promising division of labour given the aforementioned flubbing of ‘Raw Power’s initial mixes, but somehow, it works splendidly. A perfect halfway meeting between Bowie’s consummate professionalism and Iggy’s feral wild man antics, ‘The Idiot’ presents a darker, more damaged and rockist take on many of the same tropes found in Bowie’s mid-‘70s output, and as such, it appealed more immediately to my punkoid sensibilities, further increasing my one-step-removed appreciation of Bowie’s talents.
The next step was a random VHS viewing of D.A. Pennebaker’s Ziggy Stardust documentary - a film whose visibility & historical significance has suffered hugely from the fact that it wasn’t widely released until over a decade after the events recorded within it (a particularly chronic failing where ol’ Chameleon Bowie is concerned). Taken on its own merits though, I think it’s an absolutely fantastic concert film, and one that I highly commend to fans of such things who may have overlooked it.
Although Bowie’s trotting out of songs by The Velvets and Jacques Brel (via Scott Walker) in his stage-show here does seem motivated more by an opportunistic attempt to steal their thunder than by a need to introduce his fans to the originators, I’ll nonetheless admit that the performances captured in the film still blew me away. Again, the feeling of grudging respect intensified. Well you can’t say he didn’t put on one hell of a show…etc.
Perhaps because some of the turns in the movie were so unexpectedly mind-blowing (‘Moonage Daydream’ with Mick Ronson contributing the most ludicrously OTT guitar solo I’ve seen in my life whilst the entire audience of teenage girls appear to lost in the throes of sexual ecstasy is pretty hard to beat as an absolute apex of never-to-be-repeated rock star ridiculousness), my subsequent belated acquisition of the Ziggy Stardust album felt like a bit of an anticlimax.
Well, I say that, but… mixed feelings, y’know? I mean, there’s certainly nothing anticlimactic about ‘Five Years’, that’s for sure. Jesus Christ. If he’d recorded that song and never done anything else in his entire life, I’d still be writing a generous old deathblog here today. Breathtaking. In fact, purely in terms of songwriting, most of the record is indeed the masterpiece people often claim it as. ‘Ziggy Stardust’, ‘Suffragette City’, ‘Rock N Roll Suicide’ of course, and the hilarious first few minutes of ‘Moonage Daydream’ (although the live version in the movie was much better). Oh, and ‘Lady Stardust’! My god, yeah, fantastic. Yes, there are five or six (or seven or eight) songs on there that are not to be messed with.
Nonetheless though, it’s not an album I’ve really felt the need to put on that often. I don’t know, it’s just…. something about the sound of the whole thing just bugs me. That oh-so-early’70s mixture of plinky-plonky pub piano, big ‘parody’ gestures and flat, “careful now, watch the levels” type production. It frustrates me in much the same way all those ‘70s Springsteen albums do. For all the rock n’ roll posturing, there’s just not a great deal of rock n’ roll happening here. Too much piano; too much saxophone; not enough guts. The material might be exceptional, the players might be great, but the performances sound way too neutered for my taste, dry and cold, and it’s no fun. You will disagree, of course, but what can I say?
To be honest, similar discrepancies between material and recorded sound compromise my enjoyment of most of the ‘70s Bowie albums I’ve taken the time to listen to front to back over the years. ‘Ziggy..’ aside, ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ is probably my favourite – some great songs on there, and quite a weird, tough sound, followed by about half of ‘Hunky Dory’, and after that he kinda loses me. ‘Aladdin Sane’ I couldn't hang with at all (although I like ‘Jean Genie’), and ‘Diamond Dogs’ gets WAY too overcooked / underpowered for my liking, much as I might love the artwork and concepts behind it. Never got that whole ‘thin white duke’/’Young Americans’ era either – I find it hard to get beyond the idea of it being a particularly contrived pastiche of a great form of music that really did not need his intervention.
Throughout all this, I suppose he just had an idea of what his records should sound like that was just a *little* too complacent and mainstream-acceptable for my liking, saturated as I am with what audiences at the time would have considered the real weirdy beardy stuff (Beefheart, Eno, Sabbath, Can etc.)
So then, I should love the ‘Berlin trilogy’, right? Well, I don’t really know, to be honest. These albums are so critically lauded and loaded with storied mythology of pre/post-punk gloom (of which I have little interest) I can barely even dare to approach them as an agnostic, uncommitted listener. Maybe one day I’ll finally put them on back to back and get the point? I hope so.
I mean, I’ll cop that if you’ve not heard ‘Heroes’ pop up unexpectedly on the radio and felt you’ve been hit in the stomach with a brick at least once or twice in your life, you must have a hard heart indeed, but beyond that… I dunno. They’re on the waiting list. Thereafter, I like ‘Ashes to Ashes’ and ‘Let’s Dance’ because they sound so weird, and… let’s cut the embarrassment and end this thing now shall we?
What this is all leading up to really is the horribly snide realization that, in the spirit of Alan Partridge, my favourite David Bowie album is probably ‘David Bowie’s Greatest Hits’ (yes, I do own it – I got it for DJing). Play that in isolation and you’d be hard-pressed to deny he was a real big fish in the small pond of chart-orientated white pop for most of his career, however much I personally might struggle with the deeper mysteries of his wider catalogue.
So where does all this mealy-mouthed hot n’ colding on the subject of Bowie’s recorded work leave me? I don’t know. An almost-fan? Is that an applicable status?
Actually, the more I’ve thought about it over the past few days, the more it seems to me that the veneration of Bowie is very much a generational thing.
As far as I know, most music fans in a vaguely similar age braket to myself take a similar approach to Bowie as the one I’ve outlined above. We like Bowie - maybe we even own a few of his records, and we’re happy when we hear his songs on the radio. But in no way can we comprehend the experience of really loving Bowie, the way that so many critics and musicians and DJs and pundits who were raised in the ‘70s clearly do (or did).
Growing up in the ‘90s, when the man himself was a bit of a has-been, headmaster-like figure, whilst the charts were frequently topped by ‘indie’ bands playing blatantly Bowie-derived material* and shops and libraries offered whole pantheons of ‘alternative’, non-mainstream music for us to explore on cheap CD reissues, we could take or leave his overriding influence really. His ‘meaning’ to us potentially didn’t extend much beyond that of some guy who did some good songs in the ‘70s.
For that older generation though, he was a BIG DEAL, a singular entity, an absolute game changer in a largely bland and stifling media landscape, where that particular combination of style, intelligence and transgression had no counterpart anywhere on the TV or in the mags. For a kid growing up in Britain in the early ‘70s, if you didn’t like heavy metal or prog or sensitive singer-songwriters, he must have been IT (T. Rex being unfairly dismissed by many as ‘kiddie stuff’, but that’s another story). And once you’ve got Bowie of course, you can find your way to Lou Reed, to Iggy, to Eno and Roxy Music and John Cale and Nico – inquisitive minds look further, doors to intoxicating new worlds open up. Like I say, a perfect gateway drug for that particular generation.
What percentage of early punks morphed out of an earlier identity as Bowie kids? Off the top of my head, I know members of bands as unlikely as The Germs and The Fall initially coagulated around their Bowie fandom… how many hundreds more did too? Of course, the best bands did not pass Go and went straight to The Stooges, but with three TV channels and the NME (or nearest local equivalent), many weren’t lucky enough to have that option. In short, the scatter-gun spread of his influence over those who defined half-decent music culture through the late ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s is incalculable, even if it is often unrecognisably diffuse.
Which leads me to wonder, if he was no great shakes for us ‘90s kids, how does he continue to figure for generations AFTER my own, who have largely grown up with him as a lauded cultural icon, curating festivals, wearing sharp suits and delivering ‘honest, disarming’ interviews left, right and centre?
Again, I don’t know. I suppose in the past few years, we’ve seen a big resurgence – led from the top of course - in the idea of the pop star as a kind of grand artistic visionary (witness second/third winds for the likes of Kate Bush, Laurie Anderson, David Byrne et al), and true to form, Bowie’s been all over this, meaning that it is likely to be in this mode that many obits will see him. Is this good, bad, appropriate, accurate, irrelevant? Will it mean anything to a 19 year old, a 90 year old, a 40 year old? I don’t know. I’ve said my piece, and just about run out of steam here I think.
R.I.P. David Bowie. He was never really my guy, but he seemed like a nice bloke, and he sure made some good songs.
Actually, you know what one of the best ones was? ‘Little Liza Jane’, by Davey Jones & The King Bees, 1965; I heard that on the radio yesterday for what I think might be the first time. Totally bad-ass! Sounds like Vince Taylor singing for The Yardbirds or something, brilliant rock n’roll….. and off we go again…..
*One thing that occurred to me whilst listening to about four hours of tributes on the radio yesterday whilst doing the cooking & housework was that, alongside his myriad of cooler innovations, Bowie’s ‘70s material pretty much wrote the book for what eventually became ‘brit-pop’ – something I’d never much bothered to think about before. Consider: four minute plus ‘big singles’ in which mild-mannered rock arrangements are beefed up by horns, strings, keys and what-not; off-beat/culturally resonant verses matched up with immediate, ‘anthemic’ choruses; conscious attempts to fuse popular and critical appeal. It’s all there right? Not just Suede’s more obvious imitations, but Pulp, The Manics, Supergrass, even second-stringers like The Boo Radleys, Sleeper etc etc… Bowie owned that shit, far more than he did anything related to ‘krautrock’ or ‘the avant garde’ or whatever else his more high-falutin’ defenders may claim.
Friday, January 08, 2016
The Best Records I Heard in 2015:
2. Black Time – Aerial Gobs of Love LP
Never sell out, never turn down, stick to the plan, even when the engine’s gone up in flames. The world may not love you for it, but I probably will. Arguably the best album from arguably the best British punk/rock/whatever band of the 21st century. R.I.P.?
From the review I posted here in November:
“Like Comet Gain, The Make Up and no other popular music groups, Black Time ducked the all too obvious trap of ‘60s retro-fascism and saw how they could use its stifling vision to their own ends, stripping it down and reassembling the pieces in their own image – a protective shell against the contagious rot of 21st century disappointment, powering forward toward a bleak future whilst Out-Cooling the opposition at every turn.
Clattering, frustrated, chaotic and impassioned, wreathed always in an aura of mildewed tape decay and careless abandon, Black Time’s music certainly makes for a challenging listen, but there is a kernel of white-light awesomeness within it that further reveals itself on each new spin, like wallpaper stripped from brick, unveiling a blueprint for a whole new order of unfiltered, subterranean rock n’ roll, cut almost too raw for public consumption.
Listeners who express alarm at the thought of clipping levels, incomprehensible vocals and one mic drum recording are advised to avert their eyes and just keep walking, but, for those of us who still get unreasonably excited by moments on records when someone hits a fuzzbox and everything just goes beserk, Black Time are/were a god-send - a ‘for madmen only’ brew of trash, blare and discontent that makes me rue my repeated failure to experience it happening at close quarters just a few years ago.”
Listen and buy from Förbjudna Ljud, and don’t forget to check out this essential odd & sods tape whilst you’re at it.
Tuesday, January 05, 2016
The Best Records I Heard in 2015:
3. Bong –
We Are, We Were and We Will Have Been LP
Another year, another untouchable masterpiece from Bong. Same old, same old, but if you’re waiting for my enthusiasm for this band to fade with time, seems you’re in for a long wait. I probably don’t need to tell you that they sound all better now that I’ve actually got SPEAKERS.
Following the tongue-in-cheek apotheosis of last year’s ‘Stoner Rock’, the aesthetic hand brake turn the band perform here is something of a stroke of genius, as the bulbous, mutant mushroom-filled sci-fi dreamscapes depicted on the former album’s artwork are replaced with a twelve inch square detail from J.M.W Turner’s ‘Thompson’s Aeolian Harp’ - gentle, rolling plains stretching out like some visionary recreation of the Thames beneath the band’s sigil-like logo. That it is my favourite album cover of 2015 almost goes without saying. (Fuck all these ‘portraits’ egotistically clogging up the fronts of contemporary LPs, you’ve got to love a band that’s into landscapes.)
Correspondingly, this time around Bong take their source texts not from Lovecraft or Dunsany, but from a few brief stanzas that I take to be of the band’s own composition; simple statements of cosmic positivity of a stripe rare in these dark days, and of course, they have to musical weight needed to back them up.
As I’m sure the Bong would appreciate given the previous fun & games they’ve had with genre signifiers and expectations, ‘We Were..’ expands their sonic palette to the extent that, by the end of side # 2, using the term ‘doom’ as a shorthand for this music seems utterly ridiculous. Indeed, ‘We Are..’ must be Bong’s least conventionally ‘heavy’ set to date, rivalled only by 2013’s ‘Idle Days on the Yann’ or their off-beat 2009 debut ‘Bethamoora’.
As I’m sure I must have opined previously in these pages, Bong’s ‘metal’ ancestry becomes distant indeed when they’re in this mood, setting sail instead for the realms of what I personally prefer to term ‘pure psychedelia’ – the same kind of non-denominational, maximalist ‘head music’ that served to take such prior explorers as Alice Coltrane, The Boredoms or Parson Sound well beyond the radar of their respective source genres.
On the A side here, ‘Time Regained’ does at least ground us with a familiar distorted rumble of sub-bass, decaying notes flat and placid as the gentle waters depicted by Turner, as a glacial locked groove rhythm from drummer Mike Smith keeps nerves soothed and clocks slowly ticking beneath. By the time Dave Terry’s magisterial proclamations enter at the half-way mark, sounding more assured and less potentially comical than at any point in the band’s prior catalogue, we been lifted to a mighty, head-nodding plateau of cascading, eternal echoes, room reverberating like a giant delay pedal, leaving us perfectly placed to chew over his words; “Friends, do not fear for the future / We are, we were, and we will have been / We are giants in time / Astride the ages”. Heavy in the ‘60s sense of the word. I think I hear Michael Moorcock knocking out there somewhere, if I could only but reach the door handle…
Suitably revived, we move on to the flip, where ‘Find Your Own Gods’ opens with an equally stark pronouncement from our narrator; “Find your own gods / not in dreary chapels and dismal shrines / but under the stones and streams / in faint mist on familiar hills / through soft morning light / behind the shadow of trees.”
For the track that follows, Bong dispense entirely with their conventional walls of amp roar, leaving the way open instead for a sprawling, open-skied jaunt down-river, conjured largely from phased string warble, crystalline synth drone, eerie cymbal swish and frail, woody, echoing tones wracked judiciously from Ben Freeth’s augmented Shahi Baaja set-up, before the drums eventually enter once again, like a bosun’s yelled instruction, pointing the way, ever forward, like the pulse that might have echoed through an alternative version of ‘Aguirre: The Wrath of God’ in which Kinski’s fevered quest really did lead him to a lost city of gold....
Another year. Another tax return. Another optician’s appointment. Another pay freeze. Another Bong LP. Life in the eternal now’s not so bad.
Listen and buy from Ritual Productions.
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