Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Smashing Pumpkins - Siamese Dream (1993)

As a fan of both H.P. Lovecraft and Throbbing Gristle, I'm fairly well accustomed to disassociating art from the shitheads who created it, which is handy given Billy Corgan's unfortunate transformation into the tinfoil-hatted Infowars Uncle Fester; because I was once quite partial to a spot of Smashing Pumpkins, or at least to this album. The Pumpkins seem to have benefited from the rush to find something else which sounded a bit like Nirvana back in the early nineties or thereabouts. They didn't particularly sound like Nirvana, beyond a certain emotional thrust and a propensity for huge riffs played on fuzz guitar, but never mind; besides which, I personally always thought they were better.

The secret of their success, or the success of Siamese Dream, is that at heart it's actually just corny old country rock such as dominated the seventies and tended to be sold beneath an airbrushed logo of letters made out of swooshy marshmallow. It's shaved off its handlebar moustache, swapped the flares for leather trousers, and the lyrics are about a million times better, but it's the same thing we recall from Boston, REO Speedwagon, all those I'll Be a Kentucky Fool for Your Lovin' bands. The difference is mostly in a production which has given everything the warm, comforting glow of a codeine haze, and most of that seems to come from the guitar fuzzed to a point approaching soup.

I once mentioned my love of this album to my friend Paul, who said that he didn't know anything about the Smashing Pumpkins except that he only ever saw the name on T-shirts worn by self-harming teenage girls with too much make-up. I can see what the appeal was. There's a strength to the music, a muscular quality but its buried fairly deep beneath layers of all sorts of wounded stuff and with not much posturing involved - like a much more powerful Smiths without the suggestion of whining. I suppose then, this is probably where all those fucking awful emo bands came from, giving us another reason to shun the Corgan, but as is often the case when you go back to the source, this was where someone got the formula exactly right. It's a tender - and almost perfect - album, contrasting vulnerability with an underlying strength, and listening to it feels like recovering from something horrible. It's overwrought, but then that's what it felt like being a teenager, so far as I recall.

...and extra points for writing a song about preferring outer space to having to spend another moment on the same planet as Everett True.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Rimarimba - Chicago Death Excretion Geometry (1987)

Rimarimba was a name which turned up on tape compilations back in the eighties, specifically the Real Time series put out by Unlikely Records. Robert Cox was the man behind both Unlikely Records and Rimarimba, so it sort of felt a little as though he was sneaking this stuff into my home by wrapping it up with the music of acts I actually wanted to hear, Attrition and others; and it sort of felt that way because it's exactly what I would have done. I didn't actually dislike the music of Rimarimba, but it seemed repetitive and fiddly and not entirely my sort of thing; and then suddenly, thirty years later, I bought this album because it was there, affordable where the first two now cost a fucking fortune, and I somehow felt it my duty to buy the thing, like maybe I owed Rimarimba an apology. It felt as though I should at least make an effort, besides which I always find it pleasing when it turns out that some tape dude has made it onto vinyl.

Rimarimba works much better at length - as opposed to broken down into five minute snatches on some cassette - and with a better understanding of what he was trying to do - thanks in part to extensive sleeve notes of the kind one would expect to find on a classical recording. Simply, this is systems music in the vein of Philip Glass, Steve Reich and so on, and as such really needs a broader span of time in which to build up momentum and achieve its effect. I gather this is mostly programmed - sequences of notes, tunes which repeat over and over, change, or are replaced with fresh sequences - and yet it doesn't quite sound so, retaining an organic sense of progression, and the instrumentation is such that it could be played by a small orchestra without anyone giving themselves a hernia. Not being classically trained, as Cox clearly is, I don't fully understand the promises made in the sleeve notes regarding the structure of the music or what he was trying to do with it, but it nevertheless feels like a satisfying, rounded piece of work, not quite hypnotic but definitely immersive, which leaves faint traces of mood in the consciousness even after the needle has lifted from the end of the second side - sort of how the ambling melodies of village church bells can stay lodged long after one has passed by.

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Tad - Quick and Dirty (2018)

Record Store Day fills me with cynicism. I've always listened to record albums because that's my preferred medium, so I don't need a special day. I collect record albums because I like music, not for the sake of being a collector, and anyone who ever used the term vinyls as a plural noun can go fuck themselves. A few Record Store Days back, they issued an exclusive double album of Devo live in Seattle, and because I fucking love Devo, I had to have it. I knew Hogwild would open at nine so I got there at seven, and even then found myself stood behind a hundred or so teenagers. The queuing itself wasn't bad. The only other person over thirty was queuing directly behind me. He was after something or other by Wire and told me he loved all the English bands of that era. He also told me that he used to live in Mexico City but had come back to San Antonio because he was tired of getting kidnapped, so it was an interesting conversation. Two hours later, the doors opened, and by the time I made it in, there was no Devo live double album to be had because apparently they hadn't even ordered the fucker; and yet copies were quite naturally already for sale on eBay and Discogs at extortionate prices, so I wasn't very happy about that.

This time I forgot about Record Store Day, despite having read that there would be a Tad album amongst all the usual worthless exclusives - Barry Manilow in red vinyl and the like. I guess I'd subconsciously resigned myself to being unable to get hold of a copy, and typically it was going for twice the price on Discogs that same afternoon; but I dutifully trudged along to the store next day, just in case, and fuck me

Quick and Dirty is one side studio material and one side live, and the studio material is previously unheard, half of what we may as well call a lost Tad album - which is a very exciting thing indeed. It's been a while since I saw Busted Circuits and Ringing Ears so I have only a vague impression of how the band just kind of dissolved following a series of kicks in the proverbial teeth, and I'm not even sure I was aware they were still enough of a concern to have recorded the six newly unearthed tracks in 1999.

Tad, for the uninitiated, were how Joy Division would have sounded had they grown up in rural American woodland with only a job at the sawmill to look forward to - much harder to kill, more honest about the enduring influence of Black Sabbath, and numerous shitloads heavier. In fact Tad were pretty much the heaviest thing ever. The music speaks of rural horror, boredom, loathing, and shitty deeds undertaken for the sake of maintaining sanity, all of which contrasts with something quite vulnerable at the heart of the storm. Musically it's concrete blocks of grinding sound pinned together at bizarre mathematical angles, yet pinned together by human craft and muscle rather than engineering. There's a mechanistic quality in the relentless advance of these rhythms, born not from machines but from those brutalised by their own lives; or it makes Godflesh sound like the Sundays, if you prefer.

The six new tracks neatly fill a gap between Oppenheimer's Pretty Nightmare and the stuff Doyle recorded with Hog Molly a year or so later. Hog Molly chugged a little harder with less contrast in evidence, and were lyrically more single-minded, songs often relying on the repetition of innocuous phrases posing more questions than were answered; which can be heard here on Mummified Cop and others blending with the suggestion of melancholia and melody I assume must have come from Kurt Danielson.

I'm not usually wild about live albums, not even Tad's Live Alien Broadcasts which is decent but, bizarrely, somehow fails to invoke the raw energy of their studio recordings; so it's nice that the live side of Quick and Dirty really captures them, huge, crushing, terrifying, sweaty and probably a bit on the aromatic side, but still nailing it all down with absolute precision, and nothing lost to the sludge.

Quick and Dirty has made me very happy, so I suppose I'm going to have to concede the point that one good thing has come out of Record Store Day.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Psychic TV - Those Who Do Not (1984)

Having been a fan of Throbbing Gristle to the point of evangelism, I knew Psychic TV would be even more amazing before I'd even heard a note, or at least a clang. I listened to Force the Hand of Chance over and over once it finally appeared, gritting my teeth and insisting that it was a work of unparalleled genius, as I would clearly begin to appreciate after sufficient exposure. Then out came the second album, which was better, but which in being better, obliged me to face up to the fact of Force the Hand of Chance having been a massive disappointment; and the more Porridge explained his own genius to the media, the more I began to feel a little as though I'd been diddled, until I eventually sold those first two albums and dedicated what little disposable income I had to purchase of music which didn't require quite such a massive suspension of disbelief.

Then my friend Thomas Hamilton came to stay for a couple of days, and he happened to have this record with him.

'I've given up on them,' I explained, 'because they're shit.'

Nevertheless, we stuck the discs on my record player, one after the other because there were two of them; and against all expectation, it sounded pretty good. In fact it sounded more like I'd hoped they would sound before Force the Hand of Chance pissed on my dreams. Three decades later, finally bothering to bag myself a copy, it's quite nice to discover that my memory hasn't been playing tricks.

I've generally tended to the view that Porridge is only ever as interesting as who he's stood next to at the time, whether it be Alex Ferguson, Fred Giannelli, Dave Ball, or the rest of Throbbing Gristle; because otherwise we're just left with his own ideas, such as they are, and a bunch of people stood around saying yes, Genesis, that's really great, or at least that's how it sounds to me - although the theory works better if you try not to think about the bloody awful records he's made despite the involvement of those named above, or others who should have known better. This time he was backed by John Gosling, Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, and various members of KUKL, the Icelandic band from which the Sugarcubes were eventually born. It sounds like a live performance, mostly improvised, and of all Psychic TV I've heard, comes closest to the live ambience of Throbbing Gristle - which is a bonus because those live tapes constituted their best material, in my view. Being Psychic TV, the emphasis is on rituals and drones and spooky rather than electronic. There are bells and clangs and tapes and sounds amounting to something resembling a more ponderous Hawkwind, or maybe some obscure krautrock group; and Porridge sounds sufficiently unpredictable and scary enough to remind us why we ever liked him in the first place, those of us who actually did. It's a shame he couldn't keep it up, but two or three decent albums out of the hundred or so which have earned Porridge that prestigious listing in the Guinness Book of Records is still better than all of them having been duds; so yay - go Porridge, you old ledge!

Next week I shall be ruminating on the creative brilliance of Jeff Lynne's Electric Light Orchestra.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

The Members - At the Chelsea Nightclub (1979)

Have you ever noticed how much punk rock was concerned with wanking? Close to half the playing time of At the Chelsea Nightclub seems to concern itself with banging one out by agency of a firm hand and dirty thoughts. I've consequently developed a pet theory about this being the principle factor distinguishing late seventies punk - and related affectations - with what came before. I floated the idea on facebook, and whilst a few precedents were offered - and no less than two from the Who - earlier hymns to masturbation have generally been couched in more veiled, poetic, or even heroic terms, and it's only once we get to the Jubilee year that you really start to hear songs revelling in the sweat-drenched shame of burping the worm following purchase of gentleman's interest material from a newsagent staked out for a full two hours beforehand so as to be certain that no-one I knew was you know is already in there. Everyone had a song about wanking - the Stranglers, Alternative TV, the Vapors, Pork Dukes, Buzzcocks, Snivelling Shits, the Undertones, Devo, even Gary Numan - in fact especially Gary Numan, come to think of it; and this is why punk was great.

At the Chelsea Nightclub is what punk sounded like outside the capitol, in small satellite towns up and down the country with kids desperate to relieve the crushing boredom and apparent lack of any future other than one channelled through some fucking awful technical college; and of sufficient desperation as to not really give a shit about the cool or the moody - hence the healthy appreciation of both tunes and fun. There's a lot about this record which will have attracted subsequent frowning, and at least two of the twelve songs refer to something on the cover of a magazine, which I seem to recall being a popular lyric amongst your skinny tie types that year, and of course there are all those yobbo foghorn backing vocals. The Members were - and possibly still are - something inhabiting a point equidistant between pub rock, the Clash, maybe a bit of the Stranglers, and with a great big splodge of cod reggae thrown in because it was 1979. I already knew the album had potential on the strength of The Sound of the Suburbs being one of the greatest singles of all time, but it's somehow taken me three decades to buy the thing.

Amazingly, it's a genuinely great album without a weak track, and - at least for me - a powerful invocation of those long hot seventies summers of Midlands Today, getting drunk for the very first time, and failing to have sex with anyone besides myself. I'd object to the cod reggae but I can't because it's done so well and with such love as to bypass all possible propensity for sneering. Nicky Tesco singing in his special reggae voice might seem initially odd, like a vocal equivalent of blackface, but really it's just what suits the music and surely isn't any more an impersonation than all those phony American accents on rock records. Furthermore, there's Love in a Lift - a more excitingly sordid precedent to Aerosmith's shitty airbrushed hair metal anthem of '89 - which welds cod reggae to some of the most powerful twang heard since Duane Eddy; and Offshore Banking Business seemed to notice a specific problem with capitalism at least two decades before everyone else started going on about it. It's one of those records which sounds initially familiar, then begins to bear less and less resemblance to anything else you've heard, the more you listen.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

New Order - Movement (1981)

Something or other had given me cause to wonder what those other New Order albums were like. It seemed strange that I'd never bought any of them, given how much I liked the first album. Then having a quick look on the racks I realised that actually I had bought a couple of them, specifically Power, Corruption and Lies and Technique, and with no idea as to how or when they came to be in my collection. I listened to Power, Corruption and Lies, and I already knew Age of Consent from somewhere, so the first side sounded familiar, and yet side two didn't for some reason. Otherwise, the best that can be said of Power, Corruption and Lies is that it sounds like a demo by one of those promising local bands featuring a bass player who clearly wanted to be Peter Hook, which was actually most local bands at the beginning of the eighties.

Technique was even worse, if marginally better produced, sounding like something you would hear played during the commercial for the new Nissan Micra. I'm not sure if New Order enjoy any sort of repute as the most boring band of all time, but they probably should do.

So where the fuck did it all go wrong?

I vividly recall the buzz surrounding Joy Division before I ever heard any of their music. Then one day my friend Graham got hold of Transmission, so I went around to his house for a listen.

It started off well.

'Is it an instrumental or something?' I asked after about a minute.

'Yes,' said Graham, straight-faced and enjoying my confusion.

'Radio… live transmission,' crooned the unusually deep voice at last, after what seemed like an absurdly lengthy introduction, then again, 'Radio… live transmission.'

'So there is singing,' I said happily.

'Yes, but that's it.'

'What? You mean that's the whole song, just those words?'

'Yes,' said Graham, trying not to laugh. 'That's the whole song.'

Obviously it wasn't, but the impression endured; and whilst I liked Joy Division enough to tape everything, even the bootlegs Graham occasionally got hold of, for some reason I never bought their records. At least, I had the singles, but not the albums. Curtis always sounded like a man doing a comedy deep voice, and it always seemed to get in the way; and I found Closer somehow empty and underwhelming, just nicely arranged marble statues not actually saying very much; and yes, Joy Divison were great, but…

Movement felt like the first proper Joy Division album to me, the one where they got it right - a perfect blend of pseudo-classical melancholia and the more wistful, cautiously uptempo moods which began to emerge on Closer, but were drowned out by a certain Orson Welles impersonator. Sumner's vocals are relatively weak but they suit the music better, at least on Movement, doing a job without ever dominating or upsetting the fine balance. Of course, it's terrible that it should have taken a death in the family to get them to this place, but then none of us are going to live forever, so it is what it is. For my money, Movement is magnificent and as such remains the greatest album made by any of those involved, not least Martin Hannett; and from now on I just won't think about what came after.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Looney Tunes (1976)

I discovered punk rock at the age of fourteen, roughly speaking. Prior to that, I had my four Beatles albums - which had been my record collection since the age of eleven or so - and I thought Abba were quite good, but most of all I liked novelty records because I was a kid - my friend Sean's Wombles album, the Goodies, and this compilation, borrowed from Paul Moorman who lived on the farm next to ours and who was in my class at school. K-Tel's Looney Tunes is significant in being the first album I ever taped, having been given a mono portable tape recorder for Christmas, or possibly my birthday. I hadn't really thought about the thing until I chanced across a copy in Half-Price Books and realised what it was. I hadn't really thought about it because Looney Tunes dropped off my radar pretty fucking quickly once I discovered punk rock, which I regarded as proper grown up music, although it's probably ironic that the thing which first drew me to punk rock was that they said rude words on the telly, which was funny. Not for nothing does Stewart Home characterise the most successful punk bands as novelty acts in Cranked Up Really High, but anyway...

Thirty five years later, these twenty-four tracks, all crammed into tiny grooves so as to achieve maximum value for money, sound astonishingly good, perhaps even better than they did to my fourteen-year old ears, not least because this is mostly stuff you won't read about in the usual rock histories, the usual grown-up rock histories…

Interestingly, it's not even a couple of dozen actual looney tunes. Naturally, we have out and out comedy records such as Shaving Cream and The Streak, but there's plenty which simply chugs along on some kind of vague novelty value - The Bird's the Word or Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow, which surely only count as comedy on the grounds of having presented a more authentic doo-wop experience than Perry Como; and then we have Tiny Tim's song about tulips, whatever the hell you'd call that. The thing which stands out for me - excepting the two proper children's numbers, Rubber Duckie and that fucking awful Chipmunk shite - is how most of those gathered here are just great songs, regardless of comic thrust. Susan Christie's I Love Onions still reminds me of the Residents; and Jumpin' Gene Simons' Haunted House is a gorgeous slice of hillbilly inflected country evocative as a childhood sunset; and Lonnie Donegan's surprisingly enduring My Old Man's a Dustman establishes a clear link to the Sex Pistols and all that, even though I probably wouldn't have quite been able to say why back when I first heard it.

The more you listen, the more obvious it becomes how some of these songs are genuinely odd, even avant-garde but for the lack of a beret. Buzz Clifford's Baby Sittin' Boogie flavours its breaks with the perfectly syncopated gurgling of an infant to genuinely peculiar effect, which can surely only have been achieved through mucking about with tapes; and there's the similarly bizarre vocal acrobatics of Joe Perkins' Little Eeefin' Annie knocking Can and all those other supposedly groundbreaking acts no-one actually listens to into a cocked hat. Rarely ranging much beyond doo-wop, rockabilly, country, and maybe a touch of traditional music hall, Looney Tunes is mainstream as hell, and yet manages to be seriously fucking weird for most of the playing time - arguably excepting the aforementioned children's numbers and Charlie Drake as ever trying far too hard on My Boomerang Won't Come Back. Transfusion by Nervous Norvus will save you the bother of ever having to read J.G. Ballard, and there's the distinctly rapey Little Red Riding Hood by Sam the Sham & the Pharoahs to keep power electronics enthusiasts happy; and, in essence, what I mean to tell you is that this album has fucking everything you could ever need from a record. As some dude identifying as DaKreepa on YouTube states, the Looney Tunes album was the best fuckin' thing man has ever made, meaning that we can stop looking, having finally found the eye of the YouTube comments storm where truth finally happened.