Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Poly Styrene RIP

April 26, 2011 2 comments

In 1978 I walked into the basement of the Plymouth branch of Woolies, and asked proudly for ‘Up Yours!’.

Sounds puerile now, but at the time it was thrilling, rule-breaking, and more to the point ‘part of something bigger’. And ‘Oh Bondage, up yours!’ — a thrilling clarion call against all forms of human and mental restraint — has a nursery-rhyme simplicity and clarity which still embodies the best of that moment.

And that voice! Clear and screamy at the same time, perfect for the brilliant tumult of lyrics and subjects: ‘anti-art was the start/establishments like a laugh’//’the day the world turned dayglo’//’youths meet a Stockwell tube/weapons rule their lives’//.

But equally significant was the look. That brief moment in 75-76 — before punk ever got on telly, or became a tribal way of dressing and sounding, there were people like this: defiantly odd, brilliantly transgressive, oddly wonderful. If people walked around like John Lydon did in those years, or Poly Styrene, or the Slits, they’d still cause significant public upset. I suspect Poly was the only person to embody this fleeting moment in the charts, and thus ensure it reached spotty nerd/softies in west Devon.

And at the same time, like so many people of that era, she seemed to be ‘one of us’, not a star but an ordinary misfit who stood up and made whatever art came to her head. Perhaps today that is the most unfamiliar, and most valuable, aspect of that precious time.

Thank you Poly.

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Simon Reynolds – Rip It Up and Start Again

January 6, 2011 Leave a comment

The first thing to say about Simon Reynolds is that he is a very, very good writer. Well-researched, dealing deftly with everything from critical theory to in-band gossip.

Also that this is the nearest thing we have to a definitive account of these remarkable years. Why didn’t I read it earlier??

And finally that I’ve never come across anyone more able to capture the way music sounds in a few well-chosen metaphors. That’s a very, very hard thing to do, even more so when the music concerned is all broadly from within one genre. If you can call this exploratory period a genre.

The way he’s managed the deluge of material from this explosively, anxiously, zeitgeisty creative period is also impressive, working through a series of themes grouping bands and developments together in more-or-less chronological order. If anything would work when so much is interconnected and simultaneous, this does.

But it does risk throwing some babies out with the bathwater: for example, unless you’ve a good head for dates (or lived through the era yourself) you could be forgiven for thinking, after reading him, that post-punk was invented by PiL. I mean, John Lydon can be forgiven a lifetime of dodgy ads and in-it-for-the-money reformations of either of his bands, having entirely reinvented music not once but twice within four years of his twentieth birthday, and in radically opposing directions, and written some extraordinary lyrics (Poptones, Careering (on Metal Box, 1978), God Save the Queen (various labels… 1977) to name but three) to boot.

But the thing we now (not least thanks to Mr Reynolds) call post-punk  was around well before Public Image (Virgin, 1978) brought dub-deep bass to denizen of the record section of Woolies (in my case the branch in Tavistock, Devon, where I bought it soon after it came out. Or my friend did, didn’t like it, and gave it me shorn of its newspaper-styled sleeve). It got me wondering, how we perceived it all at the time: for me, at least, the outpouring of music that took the restlessness of punk but moved beyond its puritanical aesthetic realm *was* punk, so obviously a response to the highest/lowest possibilities of a call to permanent artistic revolution that there was no distinction between one and the other. Or if it had a name, it was New Wave, not yet a sub-genre of faintly punk-influenced pop with crap ties, just a word for a deluge of things that seemed somehow related to punk but weren’t it; some of them, even had already been around for a long time, but no one had previously noticed: from Cabaret Voltaire to Ian Dury. And we knew something special was happening, chiefly because the one and only way of hearing this stuff without buying it was via John Peel — an obsessively taped and curated and shared and late-night devoted and anticipated listen — and John Peel told us, night after night, that something remarkable was going on, as well as demonstrating this by playing it — all of it, not just the London DIY-ers. Which leads me to the next oddity in this book: that (in spite of himself apparently discovering this music via 10-12am sessions by the radio) Reynolds hugely downplays the influence of this man, the role he played in making this musical wave genuinely nationwide and cross-pollinating. And of the culturall significance of those things we now call mixtapes, with their homemade covers.

But the real oddities relate to the chronology I mentioned earlier, to how he deals with the beginnings and the endings. I don’t blame him in a way, as trying to define the edges of any ‘period’ is a thankless task.

Firstly, the beginning: he knows, because he says so, that arty, various, clever ‘punk’ existed alongside the shouty-three-chorders from the off: Subway Sect, Wire, Siouxsie are all there at the start, or so close to it that it doesn’t matter. Over the pond, this is even more true of Patti Smith and Television, art-extraordinary ‘punk’ avant la lettre: they are ‘out’ yet, Talking Heads are ‘in’ the book: why?.

What all this music has in common is that it combines the artistic ambition of prog with a new discipline – a refusal to noodle (even side 2 of Horses (Arista, 1975) has a certain focus) – and a certain harsh dash of (usually urban) charged realism: indeed that statment is about all one can do to pin down those qualities the musics of the era share; and it’s odd that this doesn’t come over, given that one of Reynold’s most salient contributions is to show us how much — shock horror — ‘prog’ and ‘post-punk’ are in fact a continuum. Nonconformist electrified pop music with artistic ambition: a continuous wave of invention from the mid-60s to the mid-80s.

Allied to this is an odd inability to join some of the dots: in addition to the above early-arty parks, much ‘pure punk’ is excluded, even when profoundly relevant. I can’t work out if this is an editorial judgement, managing the material, or (surely not) ignorance — the only reason I have for wondering about the latter is that he doesn’t seem to know that Siouxsie’s Lord’s Prayer (Join Hands, Polydor 1978) is a rehash of their first live performance, one of the most seminal if least listenable moments of 1976 and ‘real punk’. But it means that the echoes of, for example, Can in the Pistols (Submission, Problems: on Never Mind the Bollocks, Virgin 1978) are not noticed, and even more importantly the Clash are lumped in with all the other rockists. Not without reason, but one can’t overstate the signifgicance for post-punk of their early reggae experiments – Police and Thieves (on The Clash, 1977), White Man (in Hammersmith Palais) (CBS, 1978). As I blogged last week, these tracks reinvented the intensity of roots reggae for a white, non-religious audience, and really understood the significance of the groove, the bass, to boot: given the openness to such things that is a defining feature of post-punk, surely this is a major gap in his story? Meanwhile, while London Calling (CBS, 1979) is barely post-punk, it was certainly influential, and certainly has its left-field moments, not least the title track itself; while by Sandinista! (CBS, 1980) and Combat Rock (CBS, 1982) they were certainly in the van of the more left-field experiments of recent years, albeit with a certain posey rock-starrey sheen.

Here, at the later end of his story — the end, 1982-4– things get even odder. Lots of space is devoted to an excellent account of how New Pop emerged out of post-punk, as everyone from Green to the Human League to the Associates turned scratchy DIY experimentalism into liquid pop gold, while retaining (well, perhaps not, in the case of the Human League) a certain avant-garde intelligence, creating briefly one of the few eras when pure pop has also been genuinely clever, suprising in emotion and content, innovative. All this is fair and square, but if one is including this, which in his account even embraces the likes of Spandau Ballet or Depeche Mode under the post punk heading, but doesn’t include the Smiths (or at least explain their absence), then something very, very strange is going on. Morrissey was there with Devoto, Shelley, E. Smith, Albrecht and the rest, watching the Sex Pistols in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in 1976, after all; indeed lyrically at least, the Smiths might have been the last 4/4 guitar band to find a genuinely new niche within the inherently conservative, and increasingly marginal, musical form we still (*ouch*) call ‘rock’. And then there’s a whole, at its most interesting emphaticaly non-urban, aspect of the period, an extraordinarily important – indeed underestimated – story which deserves a chapter to itself: what, no Pogues? No (gawdblessem, the little wonders) Dancing Did?): postpunk electric roots.  At least, staying briefly in the imagined countryside in spirit if not in fact, he understands the Blue Orchids, who did more than anyone to move the boundaries of the period into zones of explicit spirituality, new hip priests indeed.

Anyway, an excellent read, and excellently written, and full of new information and new insights into this touchstone era.


January 6, 2011 1 comment
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The British Reggae Revolution

December 29, 2010 4 comments

Stumbled on a wonderful programme today by Don Letts,, documenting the story of British reggae. Letts noted the enormous impact of British reggae on white British rock, and is not the first to point out that people like Madness, the Police and UB40 seemed mysteriously able to get sales and radio play in far higher numbers than their black bredren; nor of the important overlaps between punk and post-punk and British reggae.

His job, of course, was to record an important first-generation immigrant story rather than document its impact on ‘indigenous’ white culture. But one point wasn’t made about this that certainly echoes my own experience: ‘white’ British music in the late 1970s was many things – omniverous, experimental, angry/isolated, often as inspired as it was amateurish – but spirituality was not on its emotional radar. For many of us, this gap was filled by roots reggae, with its strong influence from Rastafarianism, and the discovery that there was a pop music that was also cross with the world, experimental and inspired — but which heartily embraced its own form of mysticism — was a very important one.

The ramifications of this are considerable: I wonder, for example, how many white Britons first discovered both the riches of the Old Testament and the significance of Black consciousness and Black history via the music of Misty in Roots, the Congos and Burning Spear. But among other things, I’d suggest the results were crucial in their turn to the coining of a British music of black origin which transmuted the emotional intensity of religious feeling into an equally deeply felt reaction to the realities of urban Britain.

To these ears, that transmutation can first be heard in the extraordinary final minutes of the Clash’s cover of Police and Thieves (CBS, 1977), where Joe Strummer scats about bombed tube stations as if he is witnessing the coming Armagideon Time (as well as serving time on the Clash’s own early three-chord anger-posed-thrash). And it reaches its apogee on their (White Man) in Hammersmith Palais (CBS, 1978), which takes the strangeness and uncanny depth of Lee Perry and recoins it for an age of uncertainty, a religion of faithlessness, the spirituality of lonely Saturday nights in W11. This is decades before people like Tricky and musics like Drum n’Bass and Dubstep made an entire genre out of the urban sublime, the violent concrete epiphany of the car park and the drum machine.

The glories of post-punk

December 16, 2010 1 comment

In 1978 there was nothing that seemed more immoral — apart from flared trousers — than liking music made as little as three or four years earlier. And at least that music was made with ambition and pretension, the kinds of things that one might have thought at least aimed to last. Yet here am I no less than thirty years later, and the three-minute anti-art throwaway glories of those years are as scintillating, sustaining and inspiring now as they were then. The Subway Sect’s Dontsplitit (Braik B-side, 1978) is Pollock plugged in, a workout in abstract expressionist noise-beauty. New Order’s Ceremony (Factory, 1980): I remember waiting for weeks to get my hands on the first post-Joy Division release; here it is now, with its curiously thrilling loping ringing bass, and quiet yearning about avenues all lined with trees. I’m so proud of those boys from Macc, who with little contact with the Academy found they could make beauty together. Wire, oh God, Wire… has anyone got closer to turning William Blake into a three minute pop song than Outdoor Miner (Harvest, 1978)?

I could go on for a long time. But perhaps two minutes 98 seconds is all one needs to say anything.

Natural’s not in it

November 7, 2010 1 comment

I took a solid half hour to recover this evening from discovering the Gang of Four soundtracking an advert for computer games. The problem of leisure indeed. AAAAAAAAAH!

Pop music and art history

June 24, 2010 1 comment

Living through such moments is also a constant lesson for those of us with one foot in 1979 and the other in 1329 (*is* there anyone else?). For example something similar happened in Egnlish architecture, albeit infinetly better resourced, in the late C12 and again in the earlier C14. One can compare what is to live through one, experiment by experiment, not knowing where things are going,  eyes on the competition and one’s own heart at the same time, with what it is to live though another. And one can ask stylistic questions. Will future musical historians contrast the experimental waves of 65-69 and 76-79 as we do? The time lag is very short. And what of future reinventions: to me the multiple reinventions of ‘post-punk’ in the 2000s are arid, empty, devoid of the restless mission that makes the form matter. Yet this restless mission is not a formal quality, it is a text we bring to the music from outside. Could a future historian stumbling on Wire and then Elastica tell that one was essential and the other soporophic? How then do we read and reread the multiple reinventions to be witnessed in a couple of hundred years of architecture?

One thing is certain: sometimes things just line up. For example is obvious that Abba and International Gothic – mannered, crafted, complex, careful, thrilling, empty, global (for their times) are one and the same. No one should teach or learn one without the other. Surely?

The glories of post-punk

June 24, 2010 Leave a comment

Of course, those of us with our ears glued to John Peel, frantically pressing pause and record, finding spare segments of sacrificable C90 for the latest session, resulting in a palimpsest of rearranged magnetic granules on fragile brown plastic ribbon, did not know it would later have a name. But we knew everything that mattered that came from these isles at least was to one extent or another a ripple of creative experiment from the great boulder in the already-electric pond that was 1976-1977. Ripples that could be discerned (just) right up to the mid-1980s. And we knew these omniverous waves – which embraced much that the spirit of 76 pretended to find a mortal sin, from prog (Siouxsie/Magazine) to funk (Pop Group, Go4, Cabs, etc) – mattered all the more for their lack of tutored art.

What might have shocked us is to find ourselves nearly 30 years later still listening, still inspired. Thanks to the unbelievable prices for which these things can now be tracked down in physical form, I have in the last year rediscovered joys as varied as Swoon, Collossal Youth, English Settlement and the Affectionate Punch. Hearing them on headphones for the first time, albeit from files with nowhere near the depth of good vinyl (but whoever talked of audio quality when they were made?), I rediscover a music that is more than art (and at its best I use the term without hesitation, and all the more proudly because the makers were people like me, the pretentious arty twats with badges in one corner of the sixth form block); it is an inspiration, a way of life, a hunting like a brave man with a flashlight, to quote TV Smith at his wisest.

King James Bible and ‘Pop’

January 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Christianity of course plays a fundamental role in any account of western European culture.

But sometimes in this secular era it is rather hard to pin down what this specifically means: a vaguely-articulated moral framework? A built-in interest in certain ideas …. for example, sin, law, individual responsibility, ever-predicted apocalypses; all come to mind as aspects of our cultural DNA that don’t seem to go away, even when the religion that created them is in decline.

All in all, then, therefore, an easy thing to say, but rather hard to pin down when one seeks specific examples.

Yet sitting here, listening to Leonard Cohen, it strikes me that it is impossible to understand his art – as it is (for example) that of Bob Dylan and Nick Cave – without a deep familiarity, not only generally with the Judeo-Christian tradition, but with one specific translation of the bible (the King James) and its transmittal via one specific form of the faith (smaller, more blood-and-fire nonconfirmist sects (?and their Jewish equivalents, if such can be said to exist).

That’s pretty specific.

Pop music and architecture

December 9, 2009 Leave a comment

Not an obvious connection, you may think: but as I sit staring across the road at the neo-Grecian grandeur of Bristol’s Masonic hall, and the Trashcan Sinatras sing (very beautifully) about ‘watching the buildings go by’ (in the exquisite ‘Weightlifting’), I realise how often the human response to buildings is built into song.

This is the distracted, distended, lovely mindset to be had wandering unencumbered through great cities; but the same buildings can invoke a kind of connected-up, all conquering glory, beautifully cracked by Guy Garvey as he sings his way home out of Manchester Piccadilly and down Station Approach: ‘coming home I like that I/designed these buildings I walk by’.

Indeed Manchester bands, as in so many ways always the best, are unusually architecturally acute. As Peter Saville said of Joy Division, ‘Manchester is concrete underpasses and a Gothic Revival cathedral – for me Unknown Pleasures was the concrete underpass, Closer was the Gothic cathedral’.

But perhaps closer to home where the grand abandoned silk mills (among the oldest factories on earth), at once underpass and cathedral, of east Cheshire – Macclesfield in particular.

Then there’s Mark E Smith’s speeded-out Northern Soul gezeer’s 5am ‘turrets of Victorian Wealth’ (from ‘Lie dream…’) , which nails the architecture of said city in a single sentence.

But, as ever, it’s Bristol that quietly outflanks everyone. For in the 1990s Portishead, Tricky and Massive Attack between them reinvented the enduringly odd-yet-funky, oblique-yet-beguiling, compex-yet-simple aesthetic of Bristol C14 architecture for late C20 popular music, unwittingly bookending Bristol’s contribution to world history (from the dawn to the post-dusk of its emergence as a world port and a driver of economic/industrial revolution). Angels in the architecture, indeed.