Tunin' the motor, like a weekend boater
Stereo Sisterhood / Blog Graveyard:
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Monday, February 12, 2018
First exciting new band discovery of the year! Not that Guttersnipe (based in Leeds, and not to be confused with several considerably more trad punk bands of the same name) will necessarily need much of an introduction to adventurous listeners in the Northern half of the UK, having garnered a certain amount of praise/notoriety and secured many coveted alterna-festival bookings in the several years they’ve been performing/recording.
But me, I live down south and don't make it to many coveted alterna-festivals, so I just happened to notice they were listed as co-headliners with my beloved Vibracathedral Orchestra at Café Oto in March. When I visited the event page to buy my tickets, I clicked play on the video provided in order to see what I was in for, and.... oh boy.
Drunken mosh-bro idiocy from the spectators notwithstanding, this is pretty jaw-dropping.
Jan/Feb is a time of year that always demands some total fucking noise, and Guttersnipe are providing it in as exciting and unconventional a fashion as one could hope for. Each track on their bandcamp is a prime, compromise-free head-cleaner. Which is just as well, as I’d have trouble stomaching more than one of them in a single sitting.
Potentially recalling New York’s Slasher Risk, an aggressively feminized ‘80s Skullflower, Afri Rampo possessed by an Abyssinian war-god or my wildest dreams circa 2003, this is synapse-tearing stuff indeed. Check out ‘Sandworm Percolator’ or ‘Ophid Spy Cramp’ on their “Demo” and fall from your chair in involuntary supplication.
Doubly, trebly looking forward to that date in March.
(Of course, if I were paying attention, I could have been hepped to Guttersnipe WAY BACK IN 2016 when my old pal Stewart Smith wrote up a review of ‘em on a website I visit more or less everyday… ah well.)
(The photo above is taken from that piece and credited to Eleni Avraam.)
Tuesday, January 30, 2018
“I'm a lyric-writer, not a jester-guitarist in the English tradition of southern bleedin' idiots”
I am a country-borne southerner, clothed in low level privilege. I’ve never set foot in Manchester. In fact I’ve barely spent a night north of Crewe, England-wise. In insisting that I’m allowed to have an opinion on him, I’m aware that I make myself a ready facsimile of Mark Smith’s worst enemy. I’m aware of this. If I’m not careful, perhaps he’ll come back and haunt me (which really would make for a strange & frightening world).
I confess I’ve always found the widespread appeal and influence of The Fall - particularly beyond these shores - slightly mystifying. Whilst I appreciate and enjoy their music to a certain extent (see below), learning to love it can be… challenging, to say the least. The band’s music managed to be both rudimentary and threatening, and even his most fervent admirers must cop that the front MES put across to the world was insular and alienating in the extreme. Indifferently recorded and mixed, even their most accessible “numbers” tend to revolve around inscrutable, incessantly repeated playground taunts, led by a man who resembled most people’s idea of a nightmare, closing-time hobgoblin...and yet…. sell out American tours across the decades, with yankees as disparate as Pavement and Nots holding them up as key touchstones. It can’t JUST be purposeful anglophile obscurantism and the insidious influence of Brit-aligned tastemakers, surely?
Whilst I was in Japan last year, I found myself speaking to a highly talented & knowledgeable musician and music fan, and all he wanted to talk to me about was The Fall. How easy was it to get hold of copies of their earlier albums in the UK? Did they play often? What kind of people went to see them? Are they really popular, or more of a cult thing? How is Mark E. Smith generally regarded? Is he a big media figure? Do people realise how great he is? – these are all things he wanted to know. As you will appreciate, trying to find straight answers to these question was a bit difficult when put on the spot by someone speaking English as a second language.
To be honest, I’ve always felt that people born on the same street as MES probably don’t know what he’s going on about half the time, so… what can he possibly be getting across to people from other continents? I don’t know, but, for all the trouble I’ve had with it, the spirit of this music – that wired up, indigestible fury and unfathomable mystery – clearly travels, and travels well. It is kind of fascinating to me.
Though I recognise the myriad qualities of their work, and love a number of individual songs and albums a great deal, The Fall have never really been ‘my band’. Whilst around 75% of male British music fans of an age equivalent to or older than myself treat them with a degree of reverence that borders on the obsessive/irrational, I suppose I’ll never really be one of The Chosen, irrespective of the years I put in on the Peel-taping coalface.
On reflection, I think this failure to grok is just a matter of musical preference on my part, more than anything else. Although I appreciate The Fall’s dedication to simplicity and repetition, I generally tend to favour forms of rock music that aim to achieve some sort of elegance or transcendence, often coupled with exaggerated emotional expression or fantastical escapism… all of which is absolute anathema to the doggedly quotidian aesthetic cultivated by Mark E. Smith, needless to say. All those pre-existing rock clichés he spent forty years excising from his world with puritanical, year zero fervour..? I just *like* them, basically – that’s the root of the problem. I’m more comfortable when bands keep ‘em around to some extent.
In the same way that I’ve never really warmed to The Monks or Pere Ubu, the thunking, ugly, resolutely earth-bound, pointedly comfort-free botheration of The Fall’s post-punk derived sound – heavy, lolloping bass, drums staggering in a circle like a three legged dog, brittle ‘nah-nah-na-nah-nah’ guitar lines - is not a formula that has ever held a sustained appeal for me, warning me off taste-acquiring repeat plays, even as the more sinister, skeletal elements of the band’s admittedly unique conjurations simultaneously tickle my fancy on an equally regular basis.
I like it when the early-era band get their teeth into a really propulsive groove (cf: ‘The Classical’, ‘Flat of Angles’), and they could scratch some satisfyingly grisly noise out of their none-more-basic equipment on occasion (cf: ‘ Put Away’). Other oft-feted songs however just drive me up the wall, particularly those centred around stop-start, call-and-response type shenanigans. Most fans will disagree of course, but, despite their great titles, ‘Eat Yerself Fitter’ has always been a tough one for me to get through, and ‘Who Makes The Nazis?’ approaches a near Residents-like level of fingers-down-the-blackboard annoyance. I suppose I’ll never learn.
THAT SAID THOUGH, I have always really liked Mark E. Smith himself – as a character, as a writer, as an eternally inscrutable/unknowable savant, or as an expertly tuned human bullshit detector, permanently squarking in the red. To the extent that I like The Fall, I like them because of his words and his presence.
He was always a hoot in interviews – dropping his guard a little - but when it came to his more ‘formal’ public pronouncements (those on record, primarily), he always struck me more than anything as a kind of English working class equivalent of William S. Burroughs. That same calculated coldness, that total rejection of all human sentiment, as if he has put all feeling aside in order to aid the circulation of more urgent and practical ideas; hidden knowledge of such uncertain provenance and fiendish, coded complexity that more often than not it emerged hopelessly garbled from the lips of its cracked and lager-addled human medium.
As such, much of what he announced through a microphone during his career ended up sounding like the pronouncements of some malfunctioning, robotically generated emergency broadcast system – an unholy amalgam of guttersnipe slang, mythic/literary allusion, cut-up fragments of local newspapers, TV ads, council flyers, and sound-bites borne of idiots, slung back toward their originators like spiked balls, dripping with sarcasm and hate – absurdist slogans for an empty world.
Except that is, when it didn’t. Because he’s obviously not going to let some soft-brained cunt like me get a beam on what he’s really up to. Sometimes the words that poured out of him had a care and sensitivity, an attention to detail, a concise thematic focus to rival anything that ever came out between Faber covers.
None of this rubbish comes near to nailing him, of course. How could it? Like Burroughs, his was a mode of thinking so singular, self-contained and unprecedented that it impossible to boil down, contain, predict or catalogue. In the very frustration of its unevenness, it fascinates, and, in their determined refusal to adhere to any fixed viewpoint or cultural norm, his words remain far more dangerous and potent than those of any more conventional rock band front-person.
My favourite album by The Fall by quite some distance is ‘Dragnet’. An unconventional choice, I’ll grant you, but that’s the one that really clicked with me. Full of spidery, quasi-Crampsian rockabilly twang, leering references to Lovecraft and M.R. James, psychic dancefloors and monsters on the roof, night-creeping pulp detective fantasies and nocturnal flights from justice… it’s the band’s “horror album”, and I love it as such. For each individual song, and for the consistent ‘feel’ they create, I think it’s an unheralded masterwork, and always enjoy digging it out a few times around Halloween.
In fact, it is MES’s fondness for macabre imagery and horror stories – and his prodigious skill for creating them – that most often gives me my way in. Of course this is mainly concentrated on ‘Dragnet’, but ‘Impression of J. Temperance’, off ‘Grotesque’, is startling too in this regard – perhaps my single favourite Fall song (although ‘New Face in Hell’ and ‘Dr Bug’s Letter’ are strong contenders). In songs like this, MES really goes *deep* into this horrifying macabre shit, way beyond yr usual ‘horror rock’ signifiers, creating tormented visions to match those of any post-Lovecraft/Ligetti horror scribe.
Taken in-and-of-themselves in fact, some of these songs put me in mind less of the thug-art groove juggernaut The Fall would become in the minds of many, and more of various other ultra-obscurist tentacle-shudderers who were lurking in the dankest corners of the UK underground at around the same time – The Shadow Ring, Rudimentary Peni or Una Baines’ post-Fall pagan cabal The Fates…. none of whom were ever likely to trouble the dreams of NME sub-eds or mainstream-indie radio programmers, you’ll note, which perhaps says something for Smith’s forty solid years of banging on the door with his complaints.
Funnily enough, both ‘Spectre vs. Rector’ and ‘J. Temperance’ feature heavily in this article by Taylor Parkes about Mark E. Smith as a narrative writer, which I read the other day. It’s an excellent piece, and really gets to the heart of what I like so much about MES’s words. Recommended.
That article also served to remind me how much I enjoyed Smith’s spoken word album ‘Pander Panda Panzer’ from 2002. With characteristic unhelpfulness, this was presented on CD in the form of a single sixty minute track, but John Peel was good enough to have one of his minions chop it up into manageable slices, which – finger on the record button as per usual – I loyally put on tape and subsequently enjoyed a great deal, wedged in-between doses of the retrograde garage-rock and plunderphonic/digi-grind carnage that comprised the lion’s share of Peel’s ’02 playlist.
Therein, I heard MES tell of how the nation’s football stadia were being refitted to take account of a surprise resurgence in the popularity of jousting, and note that the streets of certain gentrified quarters of Manchester were now crawling with “bat-eared twats”, communicating with each other through sonar. Elsewhere, he seemed to be describing scenarios for bleak, surrealist films of mysterious import, as if participating in the queasiest, most oneiric pitch meeting in Hollywood history.
Ever since, I’ve found myself wishing he might put The Fall aside for a few years to concentrate on writing, or speaking. Prose, verse, I don’t care – I’d buy it. Even a well curated lyrics book would be lovely. Clearly though, MES was never in the business of fulfilling anyone’s wishes, so why should be give a fuck for mine? As we can now appreciate more than ever, he clearly lived and breathed the ideal of The Fall, and had little time in his latter years to be distracted by tangoing with editors and publishing agents. Can’t say I blame him, but let’s hope there’re some good PAPERS they can get their fangs into once they smell a sellable, recently deceased name.
Perhaps said PAPERS may once have been torn from the typewriter featured in the photo gracing the front of the mid ‘80s single cover I’ve used at the top of this post. Originally reproduced in the CD booklet for ‘This Nation’s Saving Grace’, this has always been my favourite MES/Fall photo, and I’m really glad I could find a scan of it (albeit, a pretty murky one) online.
Looking at it again after all these years, I wasn’t even entirely sure it was Smith at first – he just looks a little too handsome, that hair a little too curly… don’t you think? Careful comparison with other image results for “mark e smith 1985” make me fairly certain it is our man, but thought I’d best include this paragraph as insurance in case I’ve ballsed up and headed up an obit post with a picture of his (entirely hypothetical) brother or something.
Anyway – something about the wonderful mundanity of his working environment here – the giant mug of (cold?) tea, the pointedly displayed packet of crappy-looking chocolate biscuits and what looks like a letter from the council, as he sits there looking like the tormented accounts clerk for a haulage firm he might have been had – ahem – “punk rock” not got in the way…. It’s always struck a chord with me.
Moreso than the kind of jarring shock and emotional outpouring that often follows the news that someone who(se work) you care about has died, what I’ve experienced this week has been a feeling I’ve unfortunately been required to become very used to in recent months: the slow realisation that something that has been there for the entirety of my life is now no longer there.
Whether you loved them, loathed them or were entirely indifferent to them, if you live in the UK and like music, you will have been aware of The Fall. You’ll have known that they were always there, somewhere in the background, usually putting out a new record or getting up to some low level, NME-headline generating mischief, always offering interested parties a cryptic, weaponised response to whatever fresh hell the world had been throwing at us recently.
Now - suddenly - they’re not there anymore. It might take some getting used to.
The Fall Quote Generator. (Best used for divining purposes.)
I just remembered an old friend-of-a-friend story from many years back, about how somebody knew somebody who had once seen Mark E. Smith crossing the road outside a venue where The Fall were playing. He described him as “..walking sideways, like a crab.”
Tuesday, January 16, 2018
‘Fast’ Eddie Clarke
(1950 – 2018)
As you might well have anticipated, I was sad this weekend to hear about the passing of ‘Fast’ Eddie Clarke.
I’ve been listening to Motörhead a lot over the past few years, and Clarke is not only the best guitarist they ever had, but perhaps even my choice for the definitive guitarist of the whole 70s/80s hard-rock-into-heavy-metal trajectory.
His combo of slurred, thug brutality and sudden technical flash was *perfect* for that band, and I think he had as much to do with defining their trademark sound as Lemmy did, to be honest.
Obviously I don’t need to remind you that it was he who laid down probably the ultimate, all time #1 school playground air guitar moment (….and don’t forget the joker..), but fuck it – that one’s overplayed. Instead listen to him go on ‘No Class’, ‘Bomber’, ‘Metropolis’, ‘Stone Dead Forever’, ‘Stay Clean’… dozens of others. I *love* that unnamed instrumental cut that turns up as a bonus on their self-titled album too.
It’s difficult to come to terms with the fact that Motörhead’s classic line-up are now all gone.
Just like The Ramones are all gone, The Stooges are all gone [with the exception of Iggy, who always seemed to want to differentiate himself from the rest of ‘em anyway, so fuck him, with all due respect], Dead Moon two thirds gone. Life has not been kind to definitively brilliant, leather jacket-uniformed rock bands, has it?
What a fuckin’ world.
Tuesday, January 09, 2018
Best of 2017: Late Addition.
After spending a lot of time with his first two solo albums a few years back, I’d kind of drifted away from Greg Ashley’s work as he moved from creeped out psychedelia toward more straightforward acoustic/confessional stuff.
Last year’s ‘Pictures of St Paul Street’ – which I listened to for the first time today – however turns out to be a master-class in hate-filled, grand guignol singer-songwriter type business; a few wannabe Leonard Cohen moves gradually suffocated by the glowering ghost of Alex Chilton, leering distantly in the darkness.
Lyrics “go there” in a way they probably shouldn’t, but the settings are so swell they can swing it for me.
Check it out, why don't you.
Just imagine, had I heard this one earlier, I might have had to slot it in at, ooh, I dunno, number #6 or #7 or something on the list I posted last month. A shocking upset for you all, I realise, but you'll just have to live with it.
Wednesday, December 27, 2017
My Favourite New Releases of 2017.
This year featuring no surprises whatsoever!
1. Heron Oblivion – Live at The Chapel LP (self-released)
Heron Oblivion’s debut LP from early last year is one of the few albums from recent years that has really stuck with me, that feels better and better each time a track pops up on my earphones, and that I could still happily listen to every day. “It’s a real keeper” is I think the pat phrase I’m looking for.
Handed to me by a surly postman mere days before I decamped to a location several hundreds miles away from my record player for xmas, this live album, comprising much of the same material plus a few extra bits, is liable to prove an equally perennial pleasure on the basis of my first few spins, placing a somewhat different emphasis on the band’s work together. On the one hand, the extreme quiet/loud dynamic that stood out on the (beautifully mixed) studio recordings proves impossible to recreate in a live setting (‘Oriar’s explosive impact is slightly muted as a result). But, on the other hand, Van Harmonson and Saufley’s fuzz/wah-blasted guitar duelling is if anything even more intricately interwoven and hair-raisingly unhinged that in the studio set, and, perhaps more importantly, Meg Baird’s folk-derived songs and vocals – which I initially found a tad too prissy and precious on the album – really come into their own here, her delivery slightly more gutsy and forceful, as presumably necessitated by the need to compete with the band’s racket and the crowd’s whooping and hollering whilst out on the road (a test I perhaps wish more contemporary folk could be put to before its creators hit the studio).
Follow the link below and play through ‘Sudden Lament’ and ‘Untitled’ to hear a few relatively concise examples of this incredible band at their fire-breathing peak. Then, after buying (as you inevitably will), file under “really quite unbelievably good”, and keep both vinyl and mp3s close at hand for 2018 – I reckon they’ll be needed.
(Stream & download via bandcamp here. Best check with yr local dealers for the LP.)
2. Lower Slaughter – What Big Eyes LP (Box)
(Stream/buy from Box Records here.)
3. Feral Ohms – s/t LP (Silver Current)
One of the very few things I actually bothered to review this year, my further thoughts (plus listen/purchase links) can be found here.
4. Skullflower - The Black Iron That Fell From The Sky, To Dwell Within (Bear It or Be It) LP (Nashazphone)
5. Vibracathedral Orchestra – Live at Total Inertia 10”
(At the time of writing, this disc is actually still in stock via Norman – or, you can listen to somebody playing it on a ropey old Dansette and pointing their phone at the resulting racket here (stay vigilant for the bits where a cat walks across screen and/or meiows, and the exciting moment when the man turns the record over)).
6. Grey Hairs – Serious Business LP (Gringo)
May, I particularly enjoy the way they’ve here perfected their ability to meld heavy duty Melvins/Flag riff-grind with a keen pop sensibility and uniquely tormented sense of humour. Great recording too. In essence, everything I said about Lower Slaughter above can equally apply here (joint tour? Just a thought..), but for the fact that instead of witch trials and curses, frontman James continues to build his own inexplicably appealing aesthetic from the contemplation of eating meat, drunkenness, exhaustion and male inadequacy. It’s a lot more fun than it sounds.
(Stream/buy from Gringo here.)
7. Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs – Feed The Rats LP (Rocket)
Viewed in the warm tinnitus glow of their triumphant turn supporting (and very near upstaging) Acid Mothers Temple last October, the fact that they seem to have drummed up more interest from the increasingly myopic world of UK radio and magazines than every other group on this list combined is neither unexpected, nor undeserved. It’s fair to say that they’ve taken ‘Feed The Rats’ about as far into the realm of the “media” as it is possible to go with an album primarily comprising of two hefty, Sabbath-referencing psyche/doom epics addressing issues of mental illness, and I for one am happy to cheer their progress.
It’s also fair to say that initially I wasn’t entirely sold on this record, which, lacking the exultantly positive spirit of their live sets, plays out as an altogether darker, more tormented proposition. I do LOVE the perfect Motorhead/Hawkwind amalgam of the palette cleansing, rock n’ rolling middle track ‘Sweet Relief’ however, and my enjoyment both of it and of the aforementioned live sets now spills out across the longer cuts on either side of it, illuminating them with greater clarity, and allowing me to get with the programme. (In fact, how I failed to fully compute the true majesty of ‘Icon’ at an earlier date is a mystery. It’s middle stretch is Hawkwind-meets-Sabbath-fucking-tastic.)
Looking forward to whatever they do next, and I’ll leave you to insert your own cheer-leading “year of the pig” type comment here.
(Stream and buy via bandcamp.)
8. Endless Boogie – Vibe Killer LP (No Quarter)
If relatively few make the effort however, those who do will find themselves regularly rewarded by strange, troubled masterworks such as this one, during which Major attempts to clear the room with pure Lynchian creep on the title cut before reminiscing in pain-staking detail about the time he went to see Kiss perform at a “kite flying contest” in 1974 (‘Back in 74’), instigating an unsettling suburban rewrite of ‘Sister Ray’ (‘High Drag, Hard Doin’), and… well god only knows what he’s going on about on the inchoate ‘Bishops at Large’ or the oddly hypnotic expanse of ‘Jefferson County’ (perhaps I’m not American enough to understand). Still, he certainly doesn’t make any less sense than Mark E. Smith has on any given LP side from the past 30 years, and, as the band keep on cooking as if Status Quo had rediscovered the joys of smoking weed and letting it all hang out before eventually taking on board some absurdly misplaced Chicago post-rock mannerisms, us initiates should consider ourselves more than satisfied.
(Stream/buy via bandcamp here.)
9. Midnight Mines – We Are The Primitives of a New Era tape/download
Hard to believe they haven’t yet sold a mere 50 tapes-worth of this, so for gods sake, follow this link and help ‘em out.
10. Blown Out – Superior Venus LP (Riot Season)
Whilst I can’t in all honestly tell most of their records apart however, it nonetheless makes me extremely happy to continuing buying them and putting them on the shelf in order of release, keeping the latest close at hand for whenever the urge takes me. For, as those aforementioned bands understood, when your music can feed a particular appetite this satisfactorily, what’s to be gained by fucking with the formula? The hunger is always there, and I for one am always willing to be fed.
(Stream/buy via bandcamp)
POP QUIZ: Tell me the name of the individual who links THREE of the releases on the above list and win… I dunno, something? (HINT: for once it’s not Mike Vest.)
11. The Bats – The Deep Set LP (Flying Nun) [link]
12. Mountain Movers – s/t LP (self-released?) [link]
13. Chain & The Gang – Experimental Music LP (Radical Elite) [link]
14. Leyland Kirby – We, So Tired of all the Darkness in Our Lives d/l (self-released) [link]
15. Aggressive Perfector – Satan’s Heavy Metal tape/d/l (self-released) [link]
** STAY TUNED for long-awaiting BLOG RE-LAUNCH in early 2018! **
Saturday, December 02, 2017
Some Other Good Comps/Reissues from 2017.
Because I just can’t get enough of these yummy, critically-acclaimed £40 gatefolds with the nice covers and promises of exotic, never-before-heard revelations, it seems.
World Spirituality Classics # 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda 2xLP
So I had always assumed at least, but, well, time to get wise folks, because there’s not even the slightest whiff of cheese about the extraordinary, unclassifiable pieces assembled here by Luaka Bop. Compromising dense, over-powering monoliths of ultra-compressed electronic textures, massed voices, bone-rattling hand percussion, occasional tambora drones and gospel/deep soul influenced reiterations of ancient Hindu mantras, this is music that determinedly refuses to ever fade into the background, informed by the same uncompromising approach to composition and arrangement that characterised such challenging discs as ‘Spiritual Unity’ in earlier years.
That each track here begins sounding entirely different from the last, yet swiftly engages us in exactly the same kind of sensuous, head-nodding fugue as its predecessor, is testament to both the power and the range of endless possibilities that Alice managed to channel from her spiritual beliefs back into her music.
Existing outside of any of the expected sonic clichés, these are evocations of a terrifying, beatific godhead that has no connection whatsoever to either the Cathedral-reverbed reverence of Western devotion or the mellow, cloud-dwelling man-god of post-hippie Californian spirituality. As with all of Alice Coltrane’s best work, this music feels like peeking through the gold-flecked bead curtain into the cyclopean throne room of a divinity who radiates such love it can crush you like an ant. An endless, throbbing kaleidoscope of sound crushed down to cassette-sized doses of pupil-dilating oblivion, it’s… quite the thing.
I dread to think what ‘World Sprituality Classics # 2’ is liable to consist of, but this is certainly one hell of a good start.
Tokyo Flashback PSF ~ Psychedelic Speed Freaks! ~ 2xCD (PSF)
Of course, hearing newly disinterred cuts from core PSF groups like High Rise, White Heaven, Fushitsusha and Overhang Party is worth the entry price alone (the latter in particular provide an awesome re-working of their classic track from the second ‘Tokyo Flashback’ comp, now pleasingly retitled for English-speakers as ‘Now Appearing! Naked Existence’), but, as was often the case with this label, it’s the more unusual, less rock-orientated stuff creeping in around the edges that often proves most beguiling; terrifying, Lynchian noir improv from .es, angst-drenched Korean psych-folk from Kim Doo Soo, minimalist industrial desolation from Reizen, beautifully gentle, heart-felt free-playing from Niseaporia, and the set even ends, poignantly I’m sure, with a Bach violin sonata rearranged for solo guitar by Hideaki Kondo.
All of these cuts are by turns furious, challenging, lyrical and enchanting, opening our eyes to rarely glimpsed corners of a relentlessly creative musical underground that continues to thrive in Japan and Far-East, much akin I’d imagine to the experience Western listeners brave enough to pick up those first imported ‘Tokyo Flashback’ comps must have enjoyed when they first appeared back in the ‘90s.
I’m not sure how widely available this new comp is outside of Japan, but it is accompanied by a lovely bilingual booklet, so distribution to English–speaking territories was presumably an intention, assuming any overseas distributors could be persuaded that anyone would still be willing to buy CDs. Anyway, should you see it on sale anywhere, please don’t hesitate to prove these hypothetical distributors wrong by snapping it up, it’s extremely worthwhile.
(It’s worth giving a shout-out at this point to the U.S.-based imprint The Black Editions, who have recently embarked on a programme of reissuing the PSF label’s key releases on vinyl for the first time. I don’t actually have their re-release of the first ‘Tokyo Flashback’ comp in my hands yet, but their noble efforts certainly threaten to do a great deal of damage to both my ears and bank balance in 2018.)
Coil – Time Machines 2xLP (Dais)
And, make no mistake, this is some hardcore drone going on right here. When initially dropping the needle, first time listeners may be irked by the idea that they’ve just paid top dollar for some blank oscillator tones, but their tune will soon change as things progress and the full weight of these pieces makes itself felt.
Though this is utilitarian music, created primarily to aid meditation and ritual, like the Alice Coltrane record discussed above, it is about as far away from ‘background’ music as it is possible to get, instead setting out to capture your ‘foreground’ with the relentless determination of a swarming nanobot army.
This is music designed to completely transform the atmosphere of the environment in which it is played. Each of the record’s four sides is named after a psychotropic chemical compound, and the Coil boys seem to have done their damnedest to actually try to create a corresponding physiological change in their listeners through the sound of each piece.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say they succeed, but they certainly got pretty close. Play this record at appropriate volume, and work or writing becomes impossible. Your concentration will disintegrate, your attention will drift from the screen/desk to some blank area on the wall. Your mind will eventually start to empty, as if someone pulled the plug, and Coil’s stated intention of creating “tones to facilitate travel through time” will start to sound a lot less fanciful. Then, about ten or twelve minutes in, when you’re sufficiently monged, they’ll suddenly twist a knob and drop the kind of bass frequency that will make you cack yourself wondering if a passenger jet is about to fall out of the sky above your house. The bastards.
Needless to say, in contrast to the vast majority of ‘drone’ records I own, this is not something to be thrown on casually, for a bit of relaxation before bed time. If you want to get down with ‘Time Machines’, you’d better cross your legs on the floor, fire up the incense, dim the lights - go whole hog with it and let’s see if we can’t make that clock start to go backwards.
Midori Takada – Through The Looking Glass LP
(We Release Whatever the Fuck We Want)
Suffice to say, both ‘Mr Henri Rousseau’s Dream’ on the A-side and relatively brief ‘Trompe l’oeil’ on the B are amongst my most-played tracks of the year - absolutely delightful vistas of nocturnal faux-forest ambience, guaranteed to promote relaxed breathing and a general sense of well-being just as surely as the aforementioned Coil record is to fuck with your head. Absolutely delightful stuff, even as the somewhat more baleful ‘Catastrophe’ proceeds to drag us into unsettling realms of pulsating, rhythmic unease.
This record’s extraordinary cover art – by Yohko Ochida – is also worth a mention. Click on the picture above to enlarge and spend some time looking at it. You will be a happier person as a result.
Maki Asakawa – s/t 2xLP (Honest Jons)
Originally a native of Iskikawa prefecture in Northern Japan, Asakawa’s devotion to the sound of American jazz/blues singers (Billie Holiday in particular) led her to begin performing in Tokyo and Yokahama cabaret clubs, where she soon fell under the wing of avant-garde film and theatre director Shuji Terayama (I mean, of course she did), subsequently picking up a record contract, a formidable reputation a s a live performer and a devoted following amongst Japan’s internationally-minded, left wing student movement in short order.
Truth be told, those anticipating hair-raising avant hi-jinks from Asakwawa’s music will be initially disappointed by the fact that the majority of the recordings presented here remain fairly conventional. For the most part, these are nice songs (a mixture of Terayama compositions, American folk/blues standards reworked for the Japanese language and some Asakawa originals) with strong melodies and pleasant, minimal arrangements, anchored by Asakawa’s defiant and heart-felt delivery, which, though never as gravelly or tormented as her blues idols, nonetheless sits within an unusually low register for a Japanese female vocalist of her era.
Though it would be easy for a casual listener to mistake these tunes for prime examples of enka (the oft-wonderful genre of melancholic, folk-derived pop ballads that dominated the Japanese charts through the ‘60s and ‘70s), in fact Asakawa’s fans and musical collaborators saw her at the time as standing very much in opposition to enka orthodoxy, rejecting the overwrought arrangements, melodramatic sentiments and implicit nationalism of the genre in favour of a more stripped back, “authentic”, Western blues/folk-based approach.
Certainly, the shimmering acoustic strumming, gentle fluting, brushed drumming, smouldering cocktail jazz and tasteful rock/soul jamming showcased here make a pleasant change from the squeaky trumpets and stabbing strings of more commercial enka, even as the uniquely sinuous, serpentine melodies of the genre are still very much in evidence, resulting in a rather beguiling hybrid form that undoubtedly proved very influential on later folk-pop performers such as Carmen Maki and Morita Doji.
Whilst these songs are unlikely to blow many minds in the English-speaking world in 21st century, they are nonetheless extremely fine performances – the perfect accompaniment to a glass of single malt enjoyed on a Sunday evening, and nectar of the gods for anyone with a particular yen for the hyper-specific, monochromatic aesthetic of Japan’s late ‘60s cultural new wave – and the rare occasions on Asakawa and her collaborators throw caution to the wind and get way-out-there (such as on the George Harrison-affiliated raga-rock behemoth ‘Govinda’, or the creeped out downer lament of ‘Onna’) are worth the entry price alone.
Emma de Angelis - Forgiveness b/w Trip/Plankton 7”
Monday, November 27, 2017
The Best Comp/Reissue of 2017:
Neil Young – Hitchhiker LP
Well, if you’re going to buy ONE new release LP on a major record label this century, you might as well make it one recorded in 1976, y’knowwhatImean?
I’ll freely admit I’ve been on a colossal Neil Young binge through the second half of 2017, after finally getting around to reading Jimmy McDonough’s biography (one of the best – and most epic - music books I’ve ever read, no jive) left my head spinning for weeks with thoughts, theories, ideas and anecdotes concerning the mercurial, flawed genius of Mr. Young.
And, as such, this much-ballyhooed release of the entire legendary one mic demo session that gave the world such sublime previously released cuts as ‘Campaigner’ (on the ‘Decade’ compilation) and ‘Captain Kennedy’ (from ‘Hawks & Doves’) felt like manna from heaven to me a few months back. After all the ludicrous new releases and questionable archive choices Neil has put out in the 21st century, I wouldn’t blame anyone for approaching new product bearing his name with caution, but take it from me: this is the real deal.
Although the records Neil actually released between ‘75’s ‘Zuma’ and ‘79s ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ may not be amongst his best-loved or – cough – ‘most iconic’, I nonetheless think that this period probably represents his all-time peak, artistically speaking, and we’re right on the cusp of it here. On the particular evening these tracks were laid down, it seems he sat down with his guitar and some, uh, refreshments, and - as late producer David Briggs quotes Neil as joking in the promo blurb for this record – he just “turned on the tap”.
Neil had certainly gone through a hell of a lot of “life experience” by the time the second half of the decade rolled around, and both the sometimes cloying naivety of the ‘Gold Rush’/’Harvest’ period and the corresponding gory nihilism of the ‘Tonight’s The Night’/’On The Beach’ burn-out had come and gone by this point, meaning that, whilst the songs here retain the sublime melodic gift and ineffable ‘spook’ that characterised his work throughout the decade, his writing has more depth, more cynicism and ambiguity, more variety and imagination, more flat-out *weirdness* to it than anything he did before or since – a mixture of raw autobiographical fragments and cosmic flights of fancy that never fully settles down into any recognisible comfort zone, mixed with a perfect, poetic take on America’s history and it’s lost, post-Watergate drift, with a steely-eyed hustler’s determination to not get fucked by it.
I could go on; I could give you a song-by song break-down, keep this going for four thousand words, but what would be the point? I recognise that Neil Young fans are one of those strange breeds whose tastes seem to function on a slightly different wave-length from the rest of humanity – as such, chances are you’ve either got this already and know exactly what I’m talking about, or you don’t care. If you are a Young-fancier and this release has somehow eluded your attention though, please rectify that immediately.
I hope readers won’t think it’s just some morbid retro fixation taking hold when I state that the best music pressed to vinyl in 2017 was recorded by some washed out hippie snorting coke in a shack on Maimi beach half a decade before I was born, but, what can I say – there it is, take it or leave it.
Sunday, November 12, 2017
Dead Moon Forever.
(Blog resurrection coming soon, by the way.)
Thursday, September 14, 2017
R.I.P. Grant Hart.
I’m sorry for recent blog-death. Ideas for potential blog-rebirth are in progress, but in the meantime, I couldn’t let this one go by.
On those pre-major label Huskers records, Grant Hart is a force of nature, busting through your speakers like a hurricane. I actually cannot believe the sheer force with which he plays drums on some of the ‘Zen Arcade’ era material. With all due respect to Bob, the band’s “hardcore energy + heart-on-sleeve pop = ?!?” dynamic was largely down to him, and the intensity of his best songs remains undiminished.
Fans can/will argue long and hard about which songs those are of course, but for my part I’d advise you to click through to the following and play them as loudly as is practicable as soon as possible: 1, 2.
The first is one of the first songs I ever learned to play on the guitar, the second is as good a pick as any for the last song I want to play on the guitar, when some fantasy final encore comes.
I’ve had enough of cancer recently. R.I.P. Grant.
Friday, May 12, 2017
Fugues From a Darkening Island:
First Quarter Report (DELAYED).
Given my by now expected tardiness when it comes to producing new content for this permanently-on-life-support blog, I found it frustrating that, whilst I was slowly ploughing through that best of 2016 list earlier this year, the first quarter of 2017 was simultaneously hitting me with a wealth of great new(ish) music – all of which helped cheer me somewhat whilst trudging through one of the most dire and baleful winters this ship-of-fools planet has experienced within living memory.
Though my burning need to tell you about all this was forced into hibernation as a result of other life commitments, I’ve FINALLY found a few minutes to bang something out for you before a big trip to Japan later this month puts things on hiatus again, so let’s get cracking.
As it happens, what follows is almost exclusively gnarly guitar stuff, and exclusively from within the night-haunted shores of the British Isles, so if that doesn’t sound like your cup of teeth, well… sorry. Things are looking pretty grim around here at the mo, so if you’re looking for something a bit more laidback and nuanced, might I recommend, say, Philadelphia in the 1970s? I mean, those guys seemed to know how to put their troubles in perspective and kick back in style. Here in 2017 however, the clock appears to be ticking, so we’ve got to take advantage of all this electricity and sweat-shop produced ‘gear’ and moan about it whilst we still can.
Grey Hairs’ 2nd LP ‘Serious Business’, out now on Gringo, is the band’s best recorded statement to date. At this point, they can pretty much be considered national standard bearers for the virtues of keeping it real and making excellent rock music on a sustainable/local level, and I hope I will remain in the spirit of the “shit, suddenly we’re middle aged” aesthetic they have been rocking since their inception if I state that the pleasures of this album largely arise from the opportunity to hear group with enough of a collective track record behind them to know how to do things right, just doing things right.
A big, ol’ reeking mess of a record in the best possible sense, the essence of ‘Serious Business’ is difficult to capture in a few glib sentences (an undoubted strength, although a bit of a pain in the arse when it comes to writing this sort of thing). Swinging from Melvins/Black Flag level heft on the one hand to a cannier, more sprightly approach that puts me in mind of the much missed Eddy Current Suppression Ring on the other, the ‘Hairs strong suit here is a solid & considered approach to song-writing that matches painstakingly hewn-from-cliff-face riffs with imaginatively tangled bits of guitar-work, appropriately bludgeoning/dramatic production decisions and vocalist James’s fairly unique approach to rock band front-person conventions.
This sees him mixing scale-climbing alt-rock emoting with a desperate/oddball sense of humour that helps make his tales of collapsing/self-pitying austerity-era masculinity not only palatable, but weirdly enjoyable. A shrieked “Sick! / Sick of feeling shit! / Sick of talking it!” aptly sets the scene on the self-titled opener, whilst ‘Man is a Kitchen’ – a definite highlight in all regards – appears to concern itself with the daily torment of cooking dinner (“Meat! Takes! TIME!”). [I realise that, in the context of a rock song, such talk of meat and ovens could be taken as a precursor to some kind of loathsomely ungainly double entendre, but I can’t be the only one who would rather take it at face value in this instance.]
I’m talking a fair bit of shit myself here it seems, and could probably continue doing so for a while longer, so instead let’s cut to the chase here and just say that, in ‘Serious Business’, Grey Hairs have achieved the seemingly impossible by perfecting a form of all purpose, non-denominational “modern rock” that feels valid, exhilarating, non-embarrassing and GOOD. And they’re fucking great live too. Just have a listen, will you?
I somehow missed out on seeing Brighton’s Lower Slaughter back when they were playing with their former vocalist Max Levy (aka King of Cats), but I’ve been lucky enough to catch them twice this year with Sinead Young (ex-Divorce) on the mic, and I have found them to be bloody brilliant, bordering on hit-the-mosh-pit-if-there-was-one inspiring, on both occasions.
Like Grey Hairs, Lower Slaughter are an adaptable, non-retro-fixated modern rock unit that just works. I mean, what can you say? A wrecking ball rhythm section, a rad/inventive guitarist, a charismatic front person with a good set of pipes – it’s not exactly rocket science, is it? But rarely these days are the elements all in place just so. Go see them play, and witness some serious, original, yet exultantly rocking, rock music being made. It’s great.
Only one track featuring their new line-up out in the wild thus far, on a four way split 7”, but it’s a blinder, and they’ve got an LP on the way shortly, so I’m looking forward.
(The photo above is by Isobel Reddington by the way, shamelessly googled up and stolen from The Quietus to cover for the lack of any appropriate record covers.)
Another band sharing that split 7” with Lower Slaughter are Dublin’s Sissy, and I’ve got to admit that, whilst on paper they don’t sound much like a group that would pique my interest much these days, they absolutely “killed it” (as the kids may or may not be saying) when I saw them headlining a night at the DIY Space a few months back.
It’s difficult to really put yr finger on what separates them so definitively from every other ‘songwriter plus rhythm section’ pop-punk three piece in the world, but, after beginning proceedings with a concise “we’re from Ireland, but we don’t like the church”, Sissy played with a sheer… I dunno, ‘confidence’ is the only word I can think of, though it feels woefully insufficient… that is rare indeed, and worthy of celebration.
Lyrics on the band’s most recent EP (released in 2015 apparently… what the heck have they been doing since?!) are straight up feminist agit prop with a particular emphasis on the issues faced by women in the Republic of Ireland, aimed twist-the-knife style at any potential detractors and even getting down to the nitty gritty of such specifics as the lack of female sports coverage on TV at one point – pretty on-the-nose kinda fare, but, they sell it. The concerns are legit, the rage is real, the performance holds up.
Despite the clean guitar tone, watching Sissy put me in mind of what it might have been like to catch ‘Bleach’-era Nirvana, with a nice dose of first wave UK punk directness in the mix, and, at the risk of being hit with the comparing-female-bands-to-other-female-bands stick, a fair bit of first album-era Sleater Kinney too. (Oof, good luck shouldering those expectations guys!) Ignore at your peril, and so forth.
The Suburban Homes.
Speaking both of first wave UK punk directness, it actually took nods from as far away as Japan and the USA to point me in the direction of The Suburban Homes, an outfit based out of Crawley, West Sussex, who put out a splendid 12” entitled ‘..Are Bored’ late last year.
Sound here is somewhat akin to early Television Personalities if they’d turned away from their mod/psyche/cutie fixations and instead ploughed an ever-deepening furrow of punk rock indignation [as if to prove my point, a re-worked cover of ‘Part Time Punks’ is included with the download version], or Billy Childish’s Pop Rivets if they’d done, well, much the same.
To echo a notion that seems to apply to most of the bands I’m writing about in this post, it’s difficult to articulate quite what makes these songs so vital as they rattle through the familiar monotone, three chord Messthetics sweet-spots like an out of control mini-moke careering through a sink estate, but, heaven help us, they hit the spot.
The disgruntled Punk 101 sentiments of screeds like ‘Barbie & Ken’ and ‘iPhone Suicide’ should be any reasonable measure be considered hopelessly redundant – condemned to the realm of Mr Local Bloke, fourth on the bill at the Dog & Duck, who’s been listening to The Clash and decided he’s got a bone to pick – yet somehow here, they still ring true, caustic, disenfranchised and ready for trouble.
I think perhaps the key to it is that, in contrast to the vast majority of other punk rock bands, The Suburban Homes actually sound as if they’re coming from a place where the very act of making this music or expressing these opinions makes them genuine outcasts from the society around them – as lonely and embittered as a mohawked oik dodging rocks in some provincial bus queue back in ’78.
By adopting such a militant “back to basics” approach, The Suburban Homes dodge the retro bullet and instead succeed in dragging punk-as-genre back from the echo chamber of unreadable jacket patches and endless self-referential permutations of badly recorded caveman nonsense, and reminding us why it appealed in the first place.
Unless of course, they are actually just a bunch of urbane metropolitan elitos like myself, pulling this ‘provincial amateur punk’ shtick just to take the piss – which is always a possibility in these dark days.
Either way, my wife bought a copy of their record via bandcamp and the package arrived with “THE SUBURBAN HOMES HATE SOCIAL MEDIA” written on the back in biro, so - truly they are fighting the good fight.
I first saw Casual Nun supporting Bong a while back, and they were pretty good. In the past six months, they’ve released two separate LPs (both recorded on the same day), and they’ve evidently upped their game to the level of ‘pretty great’.
Of the two, Super Fancy Skeleton (hard copy released via Hominid Sounds) is the one I’ve spent most time with, and it finds the band expending on their palette of Heads-style rehearsal room riffola to incorporate distant groans of mechanised insectoid angst, “eastern-tinged”, the-Egyptian-gods-are-rising-to-eat-you style psyche-doom atmos, and even warped ancestral memories of Glitter Band stomp and Quo-ian boogie. It’s a pretty eclectic brew all things considered, with the album’s four tracks anchored only by the presence of a pair of guitarists who sound like they would rather die by the sword than dial down their fuzz. Nice one.
On first approach, Psychometric Testing by.. (Box) seems to venture even further afield, beginning, somewhat unexpectedly, with ninety seconds of punishing, pedal-warped hardcore before another mammoth doom plod gets underway, belying any “Bong on the cheap” accusations with a genuinely massive sound-mix, swallowing all light in the immediate vicinity, much in the way such things should. By the end, there’s what sounds like a whole cell full of unhappy prisoners wailing down a wind tunnel in the depths of the mix, as somewhat gives a distorted theremin a good seeing to in the foreground.
Raw electronic textures of the kind Hawkwind’s audio generators might have belched up get an outing on ‘Truth Machines’, before the track departs for stranger realms of malfunctioning/medicated improv freakout before eventually working its way round to a few minutes of the kind of head-nodding action Endless Boogie might sanction. Then some heavy duty effects plough in again and…. before too long, spoken word starts happening. Blimey. Let’s just say that, more so than its predecessor, this record is quite a trip – a rusty, soggy, dangerous, fungus encrusted, subterranean one, specifically speaking, but well worth taking nonetheless.
As long-term readers will be aware, when it comes to metal (as opposed to doom, for which I apply different criteria), I like it straight up, punk-spirited, unpretentious, beer-sodden and direct from the practice room. So when I saw that Manchester-based Aggressive Perfector had hand-drawn a scary demon on the cover of their debut EP and (anti)christened it ‘Satan’s Heavy Metal’, I figured I might be on to a winner, and verily, they did not disappoint.
Not much to say about this one, beyond the fact that it just fucking rips, with the opening ‘Infernal Raids’ standing out as one of the most kick ass metal songs I’ve heard in years. Though they prostrate themselves before all the expected altars (Slayer, Venom, Cryptic Slaughter, more Slayer, even a touch of Di’Anno-era Maiden perhaps?), Aggressive Perfector aren’t bogged down in nostalgia, and neither to they play like posers – this is a razor sharp, band-live-in-the-room mid-fi blast that as far as I’m concerned represents the spirit of heavy metal at its finest. I haven’t had this much fun since I discovered the Blood Patrol demo. All hail!
Last but certainly not least, I’ve recently found myself reconnecting with the contemporary output of Skullflower [hopefully a no-intro-needed level prospect, but if you do need one, try here]. Still comprising a duo of Matthew Bower and partner Samantha Davies, it transpires that the band (if we can indeed properly deem them such) have recently been unloading a prodigious quantities of new material via their bandcamp page, and simultaneously holding forth on their mystifying yet beguilingly poetical take on spirituality on their blog,whilst, admirably, cementing real world connections in such unfashionable locales as Russia and Egypt.
It is the latter that leads us to the release I would particularly like to highlight here, ‘The Black Iron That Fell From The Sky, To Dwell Within (Bear It or Be It)’, issued earlier this year on Cairo-based Nashazphone label – one of the few Skullflower releases to hit vinyl within living memory, and deservedly so, for it is an astonishing piece of work.
Very much the kind of deal wherein trying to break the music within down to verbal descriptors feels both reductive and somewhat sacrilegious, let’s just say that ‘The Black Iron..’ finds Skullflower expressing the more expansive and less punishing (relatively speaking) side of the nature. I spent some quality time with it a few weeks back, sitting between the speakers with a glass of scotch, and I’ve not been quite the same since. The first side in particular is… something else.
The record is not currently available digitally and Nashazphone’s pressing was limited to 333 copies, but there are still some on offer via Discogs at the time of writing, so please – “don’t sleep”, as the collector bores say. (You can hear some of it on Youtube here.)
Thursday, April 27, 2017
Feral Ohms – s/t 12”
(Silver Current, 2017)
Just a few months back, I was griping about Comets On Fire/Howlin’ Rain guitar-lord Ethan Miller being relegated to bass in the wonderful Heron Oblivion, and lo and behold, my prayers are answered and then some, as he’s back to knock our fucking faces off with his most ferocious band to date.
Oh, but how shall I sing of my love for Feral Ohm’s self-titled debut 12”, as recently released on Miller’s own Silver Current label?
Well, let’s put it this way – you know how the music scene in any given city at any given time is liable to include at least one band who use too many capital letters and exclamations marks whilst claiming to play “TRUE, BALLS-TO-THE-WALL HIGH ENERGY ROCK N’ROLL!!!” or suchlike? And you know how (unless they are Guitar Wolf), those bands will inevitably kind of suck?
Well, Feral Ohms make no such claims (as far as I know), but they succeed in sounding like those bands must sound in the heads of their members, if you get my drift. Which is to say, they sound a bit like The MC5 in full throttle ‘Kick Out The Jams’ mode, bulked up on steroids and 21st century pedal board excess, comin’ at you like a hurricane.
When I initially listened to a bit of the band’s live album (which appeared before this studio effort, awkwardly), I was a little concerned to hear a guitarist as gifted as Miller largely relegated to playing chords in a by-the-book garage-punk power trio, but, thanks to the miracle of multi-track recording, he’s firing on all cylinders here, his trademark lava-spurting, orgasmic volcano freakout approach to the six string molesting almost every second of this splendid record with sweetly hysterical wang bar/fuzz-wah chaos.
Basically, this band just do everything right. ‘Living Junkyard’! ‘Gods of Nicaragua’! These are the kind of things rock n’ roll songs should be called! Admittedly, ‘Teenage God Born To Die’ sounds a bit try-hard, but when you hear the track itself….. you’ll buy it.
My god, I love this record. It plays at 45, clocks in at about twenty five minutes split between nine songs, and the whole thing is just an absolute rampage. It’s sad to think that in this day and age there is probably a limited audience for stuff that sounds like Rob Tyner and Kawabata Makoto guesting on a Supersuckers record, but if you are a part of that audience, I’d advise you to try to keep Feral Ohms off your headphones when passing a tattoo shop, lest you must go through the remainder of your life with a big baboon face inked on your anatomy. Remember: rock music this exuberantly rocking must be treated with care, or blood may go to the head, and decision-making may suffer.
I’d close with a snarky note about how this record eats Ty Seagull’s oeuvre for breakfast and feeds the bones to Buck Dharma’s ravenous huskies, but that would just be petty, wouldn’t it…?
In conclusion: please just get this, it rules.
This 12” can be streamed & purchased digitally via bandcamp, and the vinyl (supplied w/ download code) has gained distribution across the US, UK and probably elsewhere, so seek and ye shall find.
Monday, March 20, 2017
Thoughts on Chuck Berry
(1926 – 2017)
1. Real busy weekend on either side of hearing the news of Chuck Berry’s passing late on Saturday night. We were organising/playing a rare gig on Sunday night, so if he’d been considerate enough to give us another 24 hours’ notice, maybe we could have fitted in a cover. Well, no matter – probably a million feckless guitarists out there right now practicing their rusty little finger / fourth fret business in time for next weekend.
2. Chuck Berry – ala The Beatles – is one of those guys so ubiquitous that younger music fans are almost inevitably going to dismiss and kick against their influence… until they eventually grow up and realise who’s really the boss. Sifting through the “roots of rock n’ roll” biz, it’s all too easy to fixate on the more cultish, wilder figures, whose reputations can still be seen as in need of defence (Bo Diddley, Link Wray, Howlin’ Wolf, Carl Perkins), whilst writing off Big Chuck as a cynical middle-aged pervert who scrubbed up r’n’b to make it palatable to white teenagers, and proceeded to milk them for the rest of his/their lives with his sickly High School Prom/Ice Cream Soda kitsch crap.
Then, once you’re broadly familiar with the sound & expectations of American r’n’b/r’n’r cira the late ‘50s, you’ll unexpectedly hear one of his tunes when you’re out somewhere, and think….. holy shit. CHUCK BERRY – yes.
It is a process we’ve all been through. If you’ve not reached the final stage yet, don’t worry, it will come.
3. Just last week, we were listening to this random Chess Records archival comp whilst cooking dinner. It’s got some blues, some r’n’b, quite a lot of doo-wop. It’s all good, all worth hearing. The, towards the end of side # 2, Chuck Berry comes on (Let it Rock), and fuck “worth hearing”, it’s PARTY TIME. The impact of that sound – cutting through the competition like a knife through butter – remains absolutely hair-raising to this day, and, as much as we may dig his contemporaries, it is HIS vision of rock n’ roll – with the REALLY LOUD rhythm guitar, the relentless driving-down-the-highway 4/4 beat, the slurred, conversational vocals and of course the short, sharp solos – that has come down to us over the years through punk, garage and ‘60s beat pop, whilst alternative models (the pianos and saxophones, stuttering, Diddley-ish beats, extravagant vocalisin’) have all fallen by the wayside, applicable to post-’65 recordings only as quaint period touches.
4. Hearing ol’ Zimmerframe trotted out declaring him “the Shakespeare of rock n’ roll” yet again is profoundly unhelpful re: gaining an appreciation of Chuck Berry’s song-writing, which – though absolutely brilliant – tends toward the kind of no nonsense, rock n’ roll shit-talking that crumbles to dust as soon as you start throwing big, poetical claims at it.
As mentioned above, I’ve never really been into the whole High School and Cadillacs “celebration of capitalist American teenhood” shtick that people like Greil Marcus probably bang on about (indeed, it is this aspect of Chuck’s rock n’ roll hits that I like the least), but if you can get beyond that, his gift for casually brilliant lyrics regularly blows my mind.
As well as being a total, dancefloor-filling rave up, I think Brown-Eyed Handsome Man ranks as one of the slyest, funniest, most imaginative songs recorded by anyone in the late ‘50s – and that’s just the bits of it I can understand. For, in one of its final verses, it also provides a perfect examples of Berry’s inspired use of numbers, place names, obscure bits of slang to create stanzas that are pretty much meaningless to the vast majority of his listeners through different times across different continents, but that nonetheless just sound impossibly cool, hitting the rhythm of the song just dead-on, creating that “I don’t quite know what he’s going on about, but I love it” feeling that echoes through so much of the best rock n’ roll. I mean, “two, three the count, with nobody over / hit a high flyer into the stands / round the thirty he was headin’ for home / it was a brown-eyed handsome man, that won the game” – wow. I don’t know a damn thing about baseball (which this is presumably about), but it just sounds amazing – like the live-wire patter of some betting shop hustler immortalised forever on the beat.
5. Whilst we’re talking lyrics, I never been able to get over “..he could play the guitar just like a-ringin’ a bell” either. Absolute genius, especially when one pauses to reflect that a-ringin’ a bell isn’t quite as easy as it’s cracked up to be.
6. Though Berry’s trademark style coalesced in pretty quick fashion, some of the early ‘hits’ where he goes a bit off-message are just raw as hell and stand out a mile. Come On is one of my favourites. It’s just punk as fuck – the backing so minimal, the sentiment so furious, and it’s less than two minutes long too; “..some STUPID JERK tryin’ to reach another number – COME ON!” – a band could’ve played this pretty much identically in The Masque or CBGBs twenty years later and fitted in just fine. (It was also the last single he put out before being sent to prison in 1961, which may explain both its uncharacteristic sense of impotent rage, and the fact it sounds as if it was recorded in one take in an unlit basement.)
And on the other side of the coin, you’ve got Memphis, Tennessee – for all that Berry worked up the image of a perma-grinning Teflon showman, this is just so plaintive, so fragile it’s near heart-breaking – “Marie is only six years old, information please” – who else was singing stuff like this, especially in the form of what is ostensibly an upbeat dancing record..?
I find it very interesting that both of these songs sound so primitive and un-self-conscious – sort of like half-formed, embryonic takes on his slicker rock n’ roll style - despite the fact that they were actually recorded towards the end of his initial, pre-prison golden era, after ‘Johnny B. Goode’, ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ etc. Listen to all these songs in succession, and the chronological order of their release dates just feels wrong, as if his style was actually regressing into something more primal as debauchery and legal troubles took their toll… but I dunno.
7. Which brings me neatly onto the inevitable note that, once you look beyond the hits, Chuck Berry recorded loaded of really weird stuff; have you checked out all those wonky Hawaiian numbers? Or Crying Steel? Down Bound Train? That one’s spooky as hell – amazing track. Much in the vein of earlier black crossover stars like Louis Armstrong, one suspects that, beneath the safe “iconic” image he played up for his white audience, there was a really strange dude struggling to be heard.
8. Whilst “don’t speak ill of the dead” conventions allow us to some extent to gloss over Chuck Berry’s chequered history of sexual impropriety and statutory rape and instead concentrate on his music, it is my duty to at least note such matters and suggest that they do not exactly reflect well on our man, in spite of the charm and force of personality that comes through in his songs. Anyway, moving on…
9. Though some may see it as a late period (1964 for godssake!) rehash of his earlier successes, Promised Land is one of my all-time favourite cuts too. Kind of a knowingly concocted “best ever Chuck Berry song”, it never fails to get me going, and proves that Chuck can literally sing the phone-book and make it sound exciting: “Los Angeles, give me Norfolk, Virginia, Tidewater four ten-oh-nine” – again, practically meaningless lyrics to anyone not living in the Southern USA in the mid-20th century, but just check out how well they roll off the tongue. Maybe there’s something in that preposterous Shakespeare quote after all?
10. As I reflected in these pages a few years back whilst reviewing this brilliantly shonky Chuck Berry live album, I have nothing but admiration for the fact, after recording pretty much all the material that made his name prior to 1960, Chuck Berry spent literally the next fifty years living what I think must on some level be the ultimate revenge fantasy of every unfairly treated black American entertainment figure – putting in zero effort as he turns up five minutes before stage-time, probably after knocking back a fair bit of complimentary booze, shouts the name of the first song to the local pick up band he’d probably not even bothered to speak to before the how, and proceeds to grind through a set of gloriously cacophonous, half-assed crap – all for an audience of white folks who paid $100 per head to see him, and, hilariously, kept on doing so right to the end. Every time I listen to the aforementioned album, I had just hear his laughter as he pockets the cheque and jumps back in his Caddy, and it makes the shambling, pub band din within sounds all the sweeter.
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