Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Cockney Rejects - Greatest Hits Vol. 1 (1980)

Why did it take me thirty years to get around to buying this thing? I suppose because I thought it was fucking stupid - four Cockney gibbons jumping up and down oo-oo-oohing to a Sham 69 b-side, and not even one of the good ones. This was the impression I picked up from reading Garry Bushell's gushing praise week after week in Sounds, most of which was additionally concerned with impressing upon me that the Cockney Rejects would kick my head in should they ever encounter me walking down the street. They would immediately recognise me as middle class because I read books, still addressed my mother as mummy despite being fifteen years of age, didn't like sport, did like art, and was terrified of the hard kids at school; and having identified me as Lord Ponsonby-Fortescue-Smythe III, the Cockney Rejects would kick my fucking head in and then go to a football match or summink.

Of course, I've since come to recognise this classification of the working classes as violent gorillas who can't read and who spend most of their spare time burping the national anthem as a romantic misconception perpetrated largely by grammar school poshos like Bushell, but I wish someone had told me sooner. I always liked Sham 69 - who were obviously something of an inspiration to the Cockney Rejects - but I somehow felt Stinky and the boys were just a little too far in the wrong direction. Whilst I never mistook the whole Oi! thing for anything inherently racist - as has often been claimed - there was doubtless some of that element in there just as Sham 69 experienced problems with a far-right bonehead following they couldn't seem to shake, and if nothing else, Oi! always seemed kind of slow to refute its jackbooted reputation, at least generally speaking.

Nevertheless, with regard to hooligan credentials, I've probably worked with postmen at least as mental as any of the Rejects ever were; and as you get older you begin to see through certain social constructs, like the notion that any expression of working class culture still waiting for a retrospective at the ICA is probably in bed with the National Front. It's all bollocks, as should be obvious from these comments by Mick Geggus I've nicked from Louder Than War:

When I heard that Channel Four had used a section of Oi Oi Oi in a programme including themes of racism, I was so angry I nearly choked... If the privileged, middle class twats had even bothered to listen to the lyrics, they would know that the kids they come from everywhere, the east end’s all around means exactly that - a rallying call to kids across the globe, from Athens to Zanzibar... My band and I have fought narrow minded people from both sides of the political divide for over three decades now, and we have the scars to prove it.

Further evidence can be found on YouTube, should it be needed, not least a particularly satisfying clip of Jeff Turner going postal on sieg heiling fuck-trumpets at a gig back in 2014; which I guess leaves us with just the music.

One thing Bushell got right was this album having that same explosive energy as Never Mind the Bollocks, or whatever it was he said. For some reason I've come to think of Oi! as a sort of 90MPH cement-mixer version of punk - verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse, chorus and it's over, with more or less every line being yap-yap-yap bark-bark-bark yap-yap-yap (pause for a single beat) Oi!

I don't know how I got this impression.

Some of it's like that, but not the good stuff, and not on this record. Mostly the sound is loud and lively, but still sharp and clear as a cut-throat razor; and the tunes are even poppy once you get past the brick wall of noise, and surprisingly happy too. Of course, as you might gather, there's some righteous class anger on here, but it's a pumped up adrenaline fuelled anger. It leaves you feeling good, and even with all the fists flying and dispensation of good-natured violence, there's a friendly quality to the whole enterprise. This record was speaking for an entire terminally marginalised culture, and the sheer camaraderie is irresistible, once you realise that these guys aren't the enemy, and they never were the enemy.

Like I say, I wish someone had told me sooner.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Kevin Harrison - Tape Recordings 1975-1985 (2016)

I always get the impression that Kevin Harrison should probably be a little more famous than he is - fame here translating to people hearing about your music, saying nice things, then buying it so that you can keep on making it and don't end up having to get a job in Tesco. That said, I've never been quite sure as to the precise extent of his fame. I first read about him in Martin Bowes' Alternative Sounds zine back in 1981, so he's always seemed sort of famous to me. I don't remember if he ever got name-checked in Dave Henderson's Wild Planet columns in Sounds, but given the wackily eclectic mix of that which Henderson covered and the sort of records Kevin has put out, he really should have been. I suppose, if nothing else, at least no-one is calling him an industrial legend or asking what he thinks about Charles Manson.

According to his website, Kevin Harrison's earliest sonic experiments were performed at the age of twelve, dropping nuts and bolts into a bucket of water then manipulating the sounds produced on the family tape recorder, and all whilst the Beatles were still in lovable moptop mode; leading to art school, and then to a bizarrely varied if somewhat underpublicised musical career which never quite seemed to square with any established or conventionally marketable pattern. These recordings might be seen as roughly kin to that whole krautrock thing, but there's always been more to the man - soul-driven dance pop with the band Urge, collaborations with various Specials and other Coventry luminaries, hanging out with members of DDAA, This Heat, and Tuxedo Moon: the guy is interesting before you've even heard a note.

Tape Recordings 1975-1985 is, as you might surmise, mostly instrumental, but never quite ambient. The fifteen tracks cover a broad range of moods - and very little which sounds like bedroom recordings, if that bothers anyone - but more than anything seem to suggest a film soundtrack, specifically the kind of effects heavy 16mm freak out genre which prevailed at the hairier end of the seventies. Guitars chime and echo off into analogue eternity as a church organ lights the darkness, and other sounds creep in, mutated beyond recognition or just hanging in the sky like giant Zardoz heads.

This is a wonderful record, and if you're new to this guy's work, it should really be considered just the beginning...

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Public Image Ltd. - Second Edition (1979)

...or Metal Box or whatever you want to call it. I have a great many all-time favourite albums, and of their number this is the one I have probably heard the least. I'm pretty sure that at some point an entire decade has passed without my having listened to this record, quite possibly two decades.

Public Image Ltd. were the first proper group that I liked when, at the age of about twelve, I graduated from playing my trusty quartet of Beatles albums into flexidiscs to listening to the top forty countdown on the wireless and noting that I quite liked some of this new punk rock stuff, or whatever it was, and I found Public Image particularly hypnotic. It wasn't that I hadn't liked anything before that point, but it had mostly been Abba and that sort of thing - tastes which neither translated into vinyl nor endured beyond puberty to any great extent. Public Image expressed something I didn't even know required expression, a sort of alienation or sense of distance dividing myself from almost everyone else; and the weird thing - at least with hindsight - is that I discovered Public Image Ltd. before I'd even heard of the Sex Pistols and spent a couple of months doubting that there was really any connection.

Having discovered music, it still took me a while to see the benefit of spending my pocket money on something other than Doctor Who books or Micronauts, and it didn't quite dawn on me that there might be a Public Image Ltd. album until Dean Howe tried to sell me his copy of Metal Box. I think he'd found it disappointing. Conversely I thought it was great, but those three discs didn't seem to like my record player, and the needle jumped all over the shop. Looking closely at the vinyl, the grooves resembled little zig-zag lines presumably due to the deep bass frequencies. Dean sold it to someone else, and I eventually bought the reissue when it came out as a more conventional double album. Annoyingly I've found this version similarly difficult to play even now that I have a relatively fancy record player, and so the thing has just sat in my collection ignored more or less since I bought it.

I suppose the benefit of all this, if there is one, is how fresh it still sounds now that I've chanced upon a copy on compact disc. By means I don't even understand, I know the thing like the proverbial back of my hand - every last little scrape and clang - and yet listening to it in 2016 is much like hearing it for the first time.

The Public Image Ltd. debut album, which I heard after I'd bought this one, seemed a transitional affair - a great big noisy discordant fuck you with all of the Chuck Berry sucked out of the mix just in case anyone had been anticipating Sex Pistols part two. Rotten seemed on the defensive, very much resenting the mechanics of his own fame, and yet unwilling to quite disappear off the deep end like some spoilt rock star recording an album of his own farts, so for all the walls of noise, First Issue pulls back from rewriting Metal Machine Music and heads off in roughly the same direction as Siouxsie and the Banshees.

Metal Box was where everything really came together. Rotten no longer sounds like he's even thought about anything relating to the Pistols for at least a year, and more than anything they're making the record they want to hear. You probably already know what it does - lengthy jams which sound very much as though they were improvised live, repetition and a certain minimalism allowing one to fully appreciate the acoustics, and easily as hypnotic as that first single. Coming back to this, I've also been surprised at how much electronic sound is woven through the structure of the record - often barely within earshot - and also how much is entirely instrumental. It's a frosty affair succinctly encapsulating how Britain felt in 1978 without recourse to slogans - damp and conducive to death - born as a vague fusion of dub reggae and all the German stuff of which Rotten was a fan, but not quite sounding like either. Aside from my preferring Another, the b-side of Memories, to its instrumental which appears on here as Graveyard, this really is a perfect record, and it will remain a perfect record regardless of how many Country Life butter adverts he appears in.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Lords of Acid - Expand Your Head (1999)

I've been listening to this for a couple of weeks now, and all that time I've been under the illusion of the whole thing being the work of Praga Khan - who seems to be the Super Hans from Peep Show of Belgian new beat, sort of; but now I find out there were at least three Lords of Acid, and some of these tracks are further co-credited to other artists such as Richie Hawtin, Frankie Bones, Joey Beltram, Luc Van Acker, and even the ordinarily bloody awful KMFDM, so I don't know what to think. My initial feeling was that Praga Khan is what Fatboy Slim would have been in a better world, which I say as someone who does not necessarily hold Fatboy Slim in high regard. I think the problem is that I can't separate Norman Cook from the knowledge of his being Tarquin Ponsonby-Worsnip III, the Earl of Haverford who chose a more working class name for himself after watching Billy Liar and joining the Housemartins - who would have been the worst group in human history were it not for the Beautiful South; so Praga Khan is like listening to Fatboy Slim without getting irritated or having to work out whether it's actually the original sample you're enjoying.

Anyway, whether this be collaborations, remixes, or whatever else, it has the paradoxical quality of sounding like the work of a dozen different artists whilst remaining consistently true to the vision and standard of just one individual, or maybe three, or however many were involved. There's big beat, Todd Terry-style techno, the rap metal of Who Do You Think You Are?, traditional 1988 acid, drum and bass, EBM, and even fucking reggae, and not only does it all sound like the work of one person, but the work of one person who happens to be good at everything; by which I mean when we get to the token hip-hop number with some rap dude, it sounds consistent with the rest but also like it could have sat happily on some other disc sandwiched between Rodney P and Task Force. Bizarrely, none of the toes of Acid dipped into adjacent styles suggest the work of anyone who might have been better advised to stick to what they know, so there's nothing equivalent to those bloody awful token hip-house tracks which kept turning up on rap albums at the end of the eighties.

The only flaw with this collection - which is a load of singles clubbed together seeing as I didn't already mention that - is possibly the excessive sexual content, mostly delivered in one of those dominatrix voices customarily threatening to step on your pecker, you naughty boy, and which never really did anything for me. Topics covered, or at least thematically invoked, include inflatable companions, whipping, up the bum, rubber, and sitting on your face. It's fine, and kind of liberating I suppose, but I've generally found the great majority of sex people - as Alan Partridge termed them - to be a massive jaw-cracking yawn, and this collection goes some way in that same direction, lyrically speaking. I think it's probably overuse of the word pussy. I've thought about this, in light of the fact that I always loved all those fetishy Adam & the Ants numbers, and I suppose it's because it gets a bit relentless after a while - pussy pussy pussy vagina pussy pussy flange pussy pussy... I'd say the same were it seventeen songs about penises.

Then there's Rough Sex which suggest that love is illusory and for weaklings because having it off is what it's all about. The song accordingly instructs us to think nothing of holding hands, candle light, love letters, red wine, red roses, tables for two and:

Don't think about trifle.

Honestly, that's what it says in the song with sternly Teutonic intonation. It may be one of those deals where it just seems funnier when you're not from Belgium.

Still, so long as no-one slips Expand Your Head on at a wedding involving prudish elderly relatives with heart conditions, you can tune out most of the sticky bits should you feel so inclined, leaving just the dance music, which is mostly great and bizarrely eclectic. For a while there was an unspoken assumption of continental European music being identified by its wearing purple drainpipes converted to flares by yellow triangles sewn in below the knee, and the great misunderstanding seems to have come from the notion that this was a bad thing. Expand Your Head demonstrates that this is not the case, once it's finished bumming you up the wrong 'un.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

All the Madmen - Tape Recordings 1980-1983 (2016)

I ordered the Kevin Harrison album from Vinyl on Demand - who specialise in lovingly produced reissues of this sort of thing - but got this one instead due to a bit of a cock-up on the catering front.

All the Madmen were Neale James Potts, Michael William Richardson, Christopher Paul Bailey and Richard Roger Weston-Smith from Stoke-on-Trent, UK. They called themselves minimal synthesizer-punks. All the Madmen started in 1980 as an anti-rock group, believing that the way that music was played and produced should change forever. One track called Superior Life made it onto the LP Cry Havoc.

That's about as much information as I can squeeze out of my internet, although I notice with interest that the Cry Havoc compilation - which is another one I'd never heard of - came from the same label as Human Trapped Rhythms. So that's interesting.

Tape Recordings 1980-1983 and Kevin Harrison's Tape Recordings 1975-1985 are just two of an eight album box set called British Cassette Culture: Recordings 1975-1985 which I can't actually afford, so I figured I'd just bag Kevin's album seeing as Vinyl on Demand started selling a few of them separately. I was kind of pissed off when the wrong one turned up in the post, but the error was soon corrected, and it transpires that this is a cracker. I probably would have bought it anyway, had I heard of them.

Given that what little All the Madmen recorded as listed on Discogs includes a mere four tracks which failed to make it onto this single vinyl album, and four of these fourteen tracks are doubled up as different versions, I gather All the Madmen were either a fairly casual confluence of people or simply weren't around for very long. They seem to have occupied a point roughly equidistant between Vice Versa and the Human League, and specifically the Human League which covered Mick Ronson's Only After Dark. Science-fiction themes abound, but coming from a rockier, more populist angle than you might expect, unless of course you'd already noticed where the name All the Madmen was pinched from. A primitive drum machine pops and slaps as synths growl out something which might almost have been scored for guitar, and was scored for guitar in the case of a highly satisfying cover of Alice Cooper's School's Out. No-one is pretending to be a robot, although there are some great lyrics about the rat race and general sense of alienation of the time. This really was a punk band with synths.

This is almost certainly the best record I've ever been sent instead of something else by accident, and it really makes me wish we could have had All the Madmen instead of Howard Jones and half of those other synth-pop horrors of the eighties.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

LOX - We Are The Streets (2000)

That's LOX as in 'lox as in short for Warlocks who were some New York street gang, so I gather, although it might be an acronym for something as well, and it's a fillet of brined salmon of the kind generally served in a bagel with cream cheese. This particular LOX were once billed as Puffy's gangsta rap crew, Bad Boy's east-coast response to the existence of NWA or something of the sort, which says as much about the rap publicity machine as about the band itself. They had a minor hit with If You Think I'm Jiggy, which riffs on Rod Stewart's Do Ya Think I'm Sexy? and probably tells you more or less everything you need to know about the lads' time at Bad Boy.

By 2000 they had managed to get themselves out of the contract - after a bit of a fight - had ceremonially burned the shiny suits, and had a new album - the first one that counted, it might be argued. We Are The Streets did okay, but not so well as everyone expected considering the anticipation, and is seemingly remembered as decent but short of classic - even in interviews with the group themselves whose view of their own second album seems founded on how many copies failed to fly out of the stores.

I don't get it. Maybe it just caught me at the right time, but this one still sounds like a landmark - perhaps not quite anything new or revolutionary in terms of surly men explaining how much they enjoy a fight, but neither did it sound like a rewrite of anyone else's record; and so far as that gritty stuff goes, We Are The Streets is so hard it's almost ridiculous. The key is probably everything coming together in a near perfect arrangement.

Keeping in mind that Jadakiss, Styles P and Sheek Louch tend to share a certain lyrical focus on subjects relating to the legal system in one way or another, whilst their thematic range may not stray far from the familiar path, their collective verbal dexterity is dizzying, making most of their peers sound kind of slow and clumsy; so whilst you may not like what they say, the way they say it is breathtaking. This was equally true of the first album with Puffy jumping up and down in the background saying things like 1998 y'all and yeah pronounced yiiiih, but the big difference is the music of Swizz Beatz and a production which hasn't assumed it knows better than the artist.

I guess the millennium was when Swizz Beatz was at his most musically extreme, and his beats are really stripped down on this album - a vast dry space with all the atmosphere sucked out, a snare like he's just punctured the seal on a jar of instant coffee, cheesy Casio synth tinkling away providing notes without quite becoming a tune, and beneath all this weird artificial tinsel, a bass like Godzilla's footsteps. The parts don't even quite seem to fit together, and yet somehow it adds up to a unique, incredible sound even when you get the impression he's just pulling things out of the mix to see how much he can lose before it degrades into random plinky-plonky noises. Swizz Beatz probably invented vapourwave or something, or at least foreshadowed some of vapourwave's more airbrushed extremes, but even now - fifteen years later - this stuff sounds like something sent back from the future after the rules have all been swapped around; and because its great strength is its minimalism, these beats can only elevate the dense lyricism, allowing the overpowering undercurrent of menace to really flow. This is some intense shit - not lacking in humour, but it's pretty dark humour - and you can tell they felt they had some points to prove after all those years of Puffy spitting into a hanky and wiping their faces in front of the other kids.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Porcupine Tree - In Absentia (2002)

This review might come out a bit lopsided due to Porcupine Tree's Steve Wilson being a friend of a friend. Specifically my friend Carl has worked on quite a few of the guy's record covers, and so I've met Steve Wilson around Carl's place at some point or other. I wasn't really sure what Porcupine Tree were supposed to be beyond assuming them to be something to do with everyone from Japan who hadn't been David Sylvian, and I didn't quite make the connection. Conversely, Steve knew of Konstruktivists - of which I was once a member - and had read a few things I wrote in The Sound Projector magazine, so that made me feel satisfyingly famous. I also knew he'd had something to do with remixing old Muslimgauze tracks, so he seemed an interesting if fairly quiet sort of bloke. I had no real idea he was some massive stadium-filling megastar until an old friend from school mentioned that Porcupine Tree were one of his favourite bands, thus allowing me to showboat with the I know that dude routine whilst experiencing simultaneous astonishment at how big this group actually were without my having had the faintest idea.

Porcupine Tree - my wife pointed out that the name suggests one of those bands formed by Andy Dwyer in Parks & Recreation: Mouse Rat, Scarecrow Boat, Teddybear Suicide and the rest; and for no particularly good reason I'd assumed they would probably sound a bit like Japan, which they don't; and Steve Wilson has supposedly been known to read my blog posts, so thank God it turns out that Porcupine Tree are actually decent. Admittedly, I probably wouldn't bother writing anything if In Absentia resembled Jonathan King out-takes, but all the same it's nice that I won't have to lie.

Eight or nine plays in and I'm amazed at how good this record sounds, and how it works very much like a single piece of music in an almost symphonic sense. Of course that's probably not such a surprise for something so obviously evolved from progressive rock roots, but the surprise is how the term progressive has been taken literally as a challenge so as to yield something genuinely new, genuinely forward looking - as opposed to twiddly fingered nostalgia for bands playing songs about Bilbo fucking Baggins. In Absentia retains the best elements of its tradition, the folksy acoustic morning dew sparkle of Jethro Tull and mathematically peculiar time signatures of such conviction and raw emotional power that you don't immediately notice the structural eccentricities. In addition, the contrast of crushing digital slabs of overdriven metal with the softer, more ethereal elements - not least Wilson's fantastically evocative voice - are captured with startling clarity, and so what might otherwise sound like an exercise in studio jiggery-pokery carries itself with a beautifully organic sense of pace.

Somewhere in that paragraph is probably a clue as to why the first comparison which came to me was Ray Davies of all people, not quite the same kind of storytelling, but a similarly wistful quality which goes somewhat further than Radiohead having a bit of a sad. In fact this is what Radiohead probably imagine they sound like.

It's not a happy album, and it in fact sounds like the anatomy of a breakdown in places, without quite invoking the sort of melodrama which needs to spell it all out in case you missed something. It's Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea rather than a self-harming character in a Neil Gaiman comic, and that's probably about as close as I can get it, which is why this is a piece of music rather than an essay. We've all had days like this.