Wednesday, 15 November 2017

The Boomtown Rats (1977)


Many years ago I was in the habit of regular posting on a Doctor Who forum, but packed it in because it got too depressing with all but a minority of fans apparently suffering from a form of arrested development leaving them bitter, surly, and tending to fixate on the things of childhood to the point of Fascism. Weirder still was how self-important so many of them could get about shit which just wouldn't matter to anyone sane, necessitating the forum imposing draconian rules - no pun intended - regarding personal attacks of such rigour that somebody was actually banned for insulting Adolf Hitler; and I really wish I'd made that up. Unfortunately this only inspired the membership to find ever more devious means by which to troll their fellows, resulting in what might conceivably be the most concentrated region of passive-aggression on the entire internet. Anyway, to get to the point, I held my ground in the music section for a while, that being where the people I've bothered to stay in touch with tended to hang out; but even that got to be a bit too much in the end, as each week brought a whole new selection of extraordinarily dispiriting thread titles hinting at the ruthlessly conservative psychology of the majority of the membership. There was Sonia's Back!, and Oh My Gosh - it's Mika!, and the one which still gets me, Best Boomtown Rats Album? presumably complete with a poll.

This last one bothered me partially because it belongs so firmly to that part of the world in which people haven't yet realised that Alan Partridge was a parody, but partially because it's hard enough liking the Boomtown Rats as it is without a bunch of hopeless wankers stood behind you wearing clothes their mum bought for them, grinning and giving you the thumbs up to show that you're one of the gang. Just half an hour ago I happened upon a YouTube clip of unexpected praise for punk rock from numerous establishment popsters of the late seventies, and there's Cliff fucking Richard heaping praise on the Boomtown Rats. I'd actually forgotten how much I hated Cliff Richard.

The Boomtown Rats came along at just the right time, at least from the viewpoint of selling records to kids of my admittedly impressionable age group. They were a bit of a mess, like a gang of Irish Bash Street Kids, and they pulled faces on the telly; but there was nothing to which one's parents could legitimately object because they were never really a punk band, despite spiky hair and one of them dangerously wearing his jimjams on stage. They were actually more or less a Rolling Stones tribute act and as such could be enjoyed on the strength of their musicianship and finely crafted songs by old farts, or indeed anyone who'd never quite understood the point of the Damned. Listen close enough and you have to wonder if someone hadn't been listening to Queen, what with the call and response and those vocal harmonies.

I didn't have a telly between 1984 and about 1993, and nor did I share a house with anyone who did have a telly, so I missed most of the stuff which might have tainted my already conditional regard of Bob Geldof, meaning I'm still able to listen to Boomtown Rats albums without too much baggage getting in the way, beyond their having been treasured amongst certain Doctor Who fans who really wish it was still 1973, back when everything was better than it is now; which is probably why this one still sounds pretty fucking decent, at least to me.

Of course, it's nothing surprising, nothing you haven't heard elsewhere. The Boomtown Rats debut album is essentially a Rolling Stones tribute act at the height of its powers, the right selection of familiar rock 'n' roll hooks, and a singer vaguely impersonating Bob Dylan, but doing it all in such a way as to enable suspension of disbelief, or at least as to enable the suspension of my disbelief when I was fourteen and Dean Howe flogged me this because he'd discovered either Iron Maiden or AC/DC or something which sounded a bit less like Bruce Springsteen; and it still sounds good, even exciting on more pumped up numbers such as Kicks, Looking After Number One, and so on. The one with the hairbrush allergy may have given his kids stupid names and pissed on his chips more than once in recent years, but he once made an album so good as to prove impervious to subsequent associations; and let us also take into consideration that he presently annoys the living shit out of Jonty UKIP Lydon, which has to count for something.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

400 Blows - The New Lords on the Block (1989)


It all seemed so promising when they first showed up with Beat the Devil, and then reviews hinted at influences taking in both Chic and Throbbing Gristle, and then there was Andrew Edward Beer's declaration of intent in the booklet accompanying Larry Peterson's Sudden Surge of Power compilation tape.

What I strive for in the confines of each piece of music is something which is best described by a term I apply to music and sound which can reach a level of perfection, and which I call universal sound and rhythm. It is rather like watching a tape level read out. I try to hit the peak of music and reach that same plateau of perfection which is so evident in the best of Sun Ra, Fela Kuti, Steve Reich and Erik Satie; and similar is another type of music which has incorporated these peaks and perfected them over centuries of improvisation, the folk music of Great Britain and Eire.

Like much of the work above, it is more an atmosphere which is created about the piece than actually trying to get from A to B and back again, then quickly fade the song. As the composer Charles Ives said, 'individual notes do not matter so much as the spirit'. This is why we use tapes so much, for they can express in a word or sound experiences and things which would need much explaining in lyrical form before the listener would begin to understand the significance.

We do not only want to reach a musical purity, for individual sounds can mean as much; but we are wary of a perfect form of music, for nothing should ever be perfect, the ultimate, the masterplan...

Although we are still a small band, we record in large twenty-four track studios and use some expensive equipment because these facilities need to be there so that we are not restricted, and all channels of sound and rhythm can be at our fingertips. Even so we may end up using very few tracks and performing on maybe only one or two instruments. We go into the studio with a minimum of information, but with many ideas and begin from there. We are as much manipulators of sound as players of instruments*.

Then they released The Return of the Dog, still one of the greatest singles of all time so far as I'm concerned - beat driven, sophisticated, luxurious, and resembling nothing else I've heard before or since. 400 Blows were funky, but an entirely different concern to all those Sheffield dudes parping away on their trumpets in Bundeswehr vests. There was something legitimately jazzy about the Blows, and with hindsight their early outings make me think of a sort of northern soul equivalent to what 23 Skidoo were up to around the same time.

They followed The Return of the Dog with Declaration of Intent, a single which, if not quite so astonishing, nevertheless succeeded as postscript to a record which otherwise made everything else released that year sound shit; and then the album came out and it was all over.

If I Kissed Her I'd Have To Kill Her First, wasn't terrible, but it was massively underwhelming and as such the last thing anyone could have expected from a band capable of coming up with The Return of the Dog. It sounded like they were pissing about in an expensive studio, which I suppose was exactly what they were doing. It sounded as though they'd ran out of ideas.

The Return of the Dog seemed rich, exotic, and even expensive in 1983, particularly through vague descent from a parent genre then busily following the New Blockaders down an unusually noisy rabbit hole full of tape hiss and distortion. They achieved a reasonable impersonation of Shakatak and the like with the next few singles, and an arguably efficient cover of Movin' by Brass Construction, and then inevitably they discovered house music contemporaneous to every other white guy with a Yamaha drum machine deciding that it looked easy and that he could do that, no sweat. So by the time The New Lords on the Block came out, possibly as some sort of New Kids related pun, that once expensive sound was now churning forth from the bedroom or garden shed of every other midi-fixated post-industrial disco boy; and it seems not insignificant that Concrete Productions, originally their label, had taken to releasing Funky Alternatives, a series of compilations which - like 400 Blows themselves - began well before devolving into a series of generic orchestral stabs over sampled beats with tapes of American televangelists wailing away in the background. I mean, Pop Will Eat Itself were on one of the later volumes, for fuck's sake…

I owned a copy of If I Kissed Her I'd Have To Kill Her First at some point but got rid of it on the grounds of being unable to remember why I'd bought it. I still own a copy of this one, although I can't actually remember buying it, but I guess I held onto it because it never sounds quite as bad as I expect it to be. There are no less than two remixes of The Return of the Dog, nearly a decade old by this point, neither adding anything worthwhile to the original; and there are a couple of what I suppose were intended as atmospheric pieces, just tapes of film dialogue with a few effects which sound as though they were included mainly for the sake of using up some studio time which had already been paid for; and then there's the house music resembling everything else recorded in 1991. Listening close, it's possible to discern a few unique polyrhythmic touches which seem to recall the luxurient imagination of their glory days, or possibly day; and although the album grows with repeat listening, the best that can be said about it is probably that it gives a decent account of how good the record should have been, but wasn't.

Shame.

*: This text has been fairly extensively edited for spelling, grammar, and an approach to punctuation which seems to have been undertaken in homage to Hugo Ball.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

23 Skidoo - The Culling is Coming (1983)


I have no excuse for not having bought this at the time, barring - I suppose - being skint due to having bought other records or paid rent or whatever. As promised in vaguely remembered reviews, it's nothing like Seven Songs, except actually it sort of is, but mainly in spirit. There was a period of about six months when 23 Skidoo were seemingly regarded as a sort of baby Throbbing Gristle, partially by association in a social sense, but also sharing some areas of interest. The Culling is Coming reminds me of Second Annual Report to a much greater extent than anything else they ever recorded, whilst also representing an affirmation of 23 Skidoo as very much a unique proposition in its own right.

The Culling is Coming comprises a couple of live improvised performances and, being awkward buggers, the lads punctuate one of these with a lock groove halfway through side one, requiring that the listener get up and move the needle on; so it's a little like having a three-sided album. The music derives from loops of rough sound - some treated, tapes, atonal thigh-bone trumpets, and Gamelan instrumentation - or possibly percussive objects found laying around in the days before anyone had heard of metal bashing. It should be a complete fucking racket in the sense of the New Blockaders being a complete fucking racket, and yet there's enough tonal contrast from dark to light, heavy to soft, that it has a definite musical sensibility, or at least a sense of progression; and this is why The Culling is Coming reminds me of Second Annual Report. There's not much you can actually hum on the way to work, but after a couple of spins it all gets ground into your inner ear in a way which sticks.

The album has the same sort of beauty one might find staring at a plate of rusted metal for a couple of minutes; and it's really not such a leap of imagination to recognise this as a relative of the same drone you will have heard in the undergrowth of Seven Songs and Urban Gamelan. In some sense, it's almost an inversion of what much allegedly industrial music has done, in that it goes beyond the powerplay of noise, texture, shock, and awe to reveal a delicate perfection in the detail; and apparently I've just turned into Paul fucking Morley. Still, this was one of the absolute finest records of its admittedly nebulous genre, and it should be remembered as such.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

J.J. Burnel - Euroman Cometh (1979)


I had some reservations. Much as I've loved the Stranglers, they had distinct periods of experimentation with being macho shitheads, and more recently I encountered Hitler salutes delivered in praise of Euroman Cometh on a peculiar blog constituting an assemblage of quotes of far right inclination. Mostly it was excerpts from interviews in which various members of Killing Joke proposed which demographic groups they would like to see sent to a hypothetical gas chamber, mainly referring to fairies, effeminate types, nancy boys, anyone who likes Boy George, people who listen to pouffy music, other fairies who have somehow eluded the initial sweep, over and over - what larks! It was hard to work out whether the author of the blog had compiled all of this material as evidence for the prosecution, or because he too wished to see fairies sent to some hypothetical gas chamber, but the suggestion of Euroman Cometh being cut from the same jackbooted cloth was troubling, particularly in the wake of certain fat folky fuckers who just happen to be stood on stage in black uniforms singing about how they quite like Europe.

Thankfully I was mistaken, as I probably would have realised had I bought this at the time. Burnel's Crabs sounded great on the Strangler's Christmas EP, but apparently not so great as to inspire me to buy the album, but never mind. Euroman Cometh is thematically a call for European unity as a progressive and essentially inclusive entity, a refutation of American influence and the more unpleasant episodes of recent European history; and even Burnel's motorbike fixation is turned to a restatement of this ideal on the cover:

The Triumph Workers Co-operative at Meriden have proved that personally motivated enterprise coupled with group interest is a necessary ingredient in successful socialism and the sham they call national socialism could only be suggested and perpetrated by enemies of the people.

See, Dougie - that's all it fucking takes, you goose-stepping wanker.

Musically speaking, Euroman could almost be a Stranglers album, albeit one with a subtle shift of emphasis in the direction of the European sensibility it strives to communicate, so it growls and swaggers just as you would expect whilst somehow invoking Metal Urbain, Grauzone, and other cold wave types who added grumbling bass to one of those primitive rhythm machines which was usually just a wooden box with a button marked rhumba on the side. Strangely, the only minor disappointment is that the studio version of Crabs isn't quite so convincing as the live version which accompanied the release of Don't Bring Harry; but this is otherwise a fucking cracker.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Spandau Ballet - Journeys to Glory (1981)


We read in the weekly music paper about how they were all the rage down in that London, but it was difficult to hear them over the sound of Judas Priest, Saxon, and the Wurzels around our way, so their impact was reduced. We smirked at them in their tartan blouses on Top of the Pops, but truthfully we weren't that bothered, and I bought The Freeze because it sounded a bit like Joy Division; and a handful of approximately decent singles followed before they turned into Val Doonican's warm-up act. Toes were tapped but ultimately it was hard to care, meaning that I'd never really thought about Spandau Ballet for longer than five seconds - excepting periods of meditation upon my hatred of Robert Elms which probably don't count; and thusly over a thirty-year period didst Spandau Ballet eventually accrue mystery sufficient as to warrant my noticing this in the Half-Price racks and wondering what it was like.

The thing which surprised me most is how pedestrian they sound, some new wave band you might have heard rehearsing in the village hall beefed up with a big production and - oh - looks like Santa brought someone a synthesiser for Christmas; and yet this was once thought to be what comes next. We had seen the future, and it was a little bit like what you hear when you turn over to BBC2 and watch the test card for a while. With hindsight, it was all very Alan Partridge.

Okay, that's a little harsh. Journeys to Glory is not without its qualities, and there was probably a point at which it sounded important and forward looking when played in some self-involved club or other; and musically it's fairly decent, but the problem is that Tony Hadley is simply a fucking awful singer. Technically he's wonderful but, to paraphrase my friend Andrew J. Duncan, there's nothing wrong with his voice and that's what's wrong with his voice. He sounds like a million other technically perfect bellowing and hooting Brentwood's Got Talent contestants, but that's all he does. There's neither range, subtlety, nor soul, regardless of how closely he sonically resembles the somewhat superior Alison Moyet. If they revised this with all of the vocals re-recorded by some guy caught having a poo in the alley outside the studio, it might be remembered as a classic, as opposed to the first album by that New Romantic band who weren't as good as Duran Duran.

I'm still going to buy the second one if I see it though. Instinction was mint.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Third Door from the Left - Face the Firing Squad (1981)


Face the Firing Squad really feels like it should be referred to in the same sentences as Second Annual Report, The Voice of America, Tissue of Lies and other brooding classics of the admittedly loose genre which I can never quite bring myself to consider industrial. It dates from roughly the same era and I played it to death at the time, but being released as a cassette, I suppose it's inevitable that it shouldn't be so well remembered. Third Door from the Left were Kevin Thorne and Raye Calouri, who met at Throbbing Gristle's performance at the YMCA in 1979, and Kevin's name appears in the list of those invited to the recording of Heathen Earth, alongside members of Coil, Konstruktivists, and others you will have most likely heard of; and you may recall Kevin's name adorning the covers of numerous Chris & Cosey releases in his capacity as designer.

Anyway, we might lazily characterise Third Door as occupying a sort of half way point between Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle, or at least live Gristle. The comparison isn't entirely unjustified, or no more so than saying the Rolling Stones were just Charlie Patton for suburban whities; but there's a lot more going on than just strange sounds and dark moods. For starters, Third Door from the Left were never afraid of a guitar sounding like a guitar, and regardless of the pensive sense of menace, you might say they were significantly more accessible than anyone from whom they may have taken inspiration. The sheer emotional weight of It's Not Us still floors me thirty-five years later in ways that Joy Division never quite managed. Seriously, it makes New Dawn Fades sound like the theme music from the Generation Game.

This edition has been lovingly pressed up as a record by Vinyl on Demand, meaning no more coughing up hundreds of quid on Discogs for a Woolworths cassette which probably won't play. The quality remains as it was on the original cassette release, which isn't a problem as it was a fairly decent recording given the limitations of the equipment of the time. At the risk of sounding like a bit of a knob, I'd suggest that this one is essential.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Dr. Dooom - First Come, First Served (1999)


It took me a while to come round to Kool Keith, and what eventually swung it was a stack of his albums for a couple of quid each in a second-hand place in Camberwell. Without actually having heard the man's work, I'd received the impression of his being another one of those rappers for people who don't actually like rap. This came from recommendations by, amongst others, Shaun Robert, formerly author of weirdy sound art cassettes under the name factor X, who, having inspected my shelves of rap CDs, opined something like, I'm a bit surprised that you don't have any Kool Keith, which sounded faintly like sneering at the time. We'd probably just had a disagreement over the merits of Björk, my position being that there aren't any, so Kool Keith became rap for people who like Björk and who probably read The Wire, to my way of thinking; and of course I was wrong.

I warmed to the idea of the man when he released an album on Esham's label, Gotham Overcore - which is probably ass-backwards, but never mind; and then when he sang the praises of low-brow rap, as the journalist termed it, in the pages of Vibe or The Source or one of those, specifically No Limit and other labels keeping Pen & Pixel in business. I could have just listened to his records, of course, but that would have been too easy.

First Come, First Served, defiantly released with another eye-watering Pen & Pixel cover, was recorded by one of Keith's numerous personalities, specifically the one which really seems to focus what I like about the guy, although appreciate may be a better word than like. He raps like a nutter, lines spat out with just a hint of anger, like you've spilled his pint but the situation hasn't quite made it out into the pub car park; and he's about four-thousand times more eloquent than most rappers. It all spills out, even sluices out in a barrage of faintly queasy and upsetting images, and it's like that moment where you take out the trash and lift the lid of the wheelie bin and get just a whiff before you remember to hold your breath. Keith seems fixated on detritus and snack food and rubbish, anything with a bit of a pong, as a sort of combined inversion and refutation of just about everything else which has ever happened in rap. If he wasn't so fucking good at it, you could be forgiven for thinking he hates the genre. There's not a lot of gold, and nor are the fizzy millionaire drinks aflowing - just about every other liquid you might care to mention but probably wouldn't, but definitely not a lot of Alizé. In fact, the imagery of dollar store diapers, cereal, and egg shells is of such concentration that if you wrote everything he said down, I'm pretty sure it would read like a less alcoholic Bukowski.

What he's actually saying is similarly pungent, and with not very much that would have seemed out of place in one of the earlier, more harrowing John Waters films. This is because he's keeping it real, as we say, but really real, the sort of real which is customarily subject to a restraining order. His message to fellow artistes is You Live at Home with Your Mom, and once you compare this album with whatever else has been doing the rounds, you realise that they do.

Musically, it's a little basic, just hard atmospheric beats keeping a rhythm to the justifiably arrogant dispensation of bile, which is how it should be. Anything stronger would mask the odour and would miss the point, so instead we get hints of turd-strewn sidewalks, film soundtracks, and Peter Lorre on full ooze sliming his way around a backing vocal, knocking on your door at midnight to apologise for the smell from the apartment across the hall, and hey, you got any toilet paper?

First Come, First Served is a classic, no argument, and I think I need a shower.