Thursday, 29 May 2014

The Clash - The Singles (2008)

Despite apparently being surrounded by massive fans of The Clash all proclaiming Strummer's brilliance and insisting that one really had to live in London at the end of the seventies to truly understand their appeal - which may well be true given that I didn't and don't - I've always had trouble with this band. It's not something I can really pinpoint with any degree of either ease or accuracy, just a vague sense of bewilderment with their enduring popularity. They were the blokey punk band, it always seemed to me - if you really want to call them a punk band - the boys you could trust if it bothered you that the Sex Pistols seemed like a bit of a novelty act and Siouxsie and the Banshees were too weird. They were the punk band it was okay to enjoy between Bob Dylan albums without spoiling your appetite, upholding a grand tradition of workmanlike efforts in proper rock that would eventually lead to Billy Bragg and Ben Elton; council estate Springsteen, or at least something aspiring to the same. They were so bored with the USA, and then a few albums later they were doing Brand New Cadillac.

Possibly it's simply Joe Strummer, a former boarding school pupil whose Holland Park residence was some way from any council estate, and whose daddy wasn't so much a bank robber as a British foreign services diplomat; as John Lydon has noted on several occasions:

Joe's a very nice bloke. He's just ashamed of his own class roots. Which is of course the antithesis to me. You are what you are, and you should work accordingly with the tools you've been given. But to pretend to be working-class drives me crazy, because that's what I come from and am. When someone tries to pretend to be that, they rubbish my achievements. My repression is not a new coat to be worn so casually as indeed neither is his. We all suffer, but on different levels, and as long as we play in our own fields, we'll all be happy. I might add that living in a council flat is not a jolly romp. That is the bane of my existence; it is not something to glamorise.

There's nothing inherently wrong with having both Lord Snooty and Ivor Lott sat on different branches of one's family tree, but to pretend otherwise is just peculiar. Nevertheless it seems sadly consistent with the Strummer I saw interviewed on one of those four million true story of punk documentaries that were doing the rounds a few years back. I can't be arsed to hunt about for YouTube clips or the exact quote wherein Joe and some other Clash bloke describe their experience at Notting Hill carnival. Apparently a policeman had sort of looked at them in a funny way, and that was what had inspired the song White Riot - you know, police harassment and that, just walking down the road minding your own business looking forward to some smashing reggae music and some of that rice and pea and that, and like some pig looking at you all funny like, all suspicious, yeah? Talk about a police state, you know what I mean?

Furthermore, even had our boy never foreshadowed Rick out of The Young Ones, there was that weird yelpy singing, like he could never quite decide whether he was English or American, like Tim Roth in Reservoir Dogs, someone playing a role.

Of course, The Clash were more than just Joe Strummer, and Mick Jones always seems to have had a knack of keeping things interesting despite overwhelming odds, channelling Nile Rodgers amongst others; and for all his potential, possibly even inconsequential shortcomings, Strummer was involved in some fucking great records even when he sounds like he really, really wants to be Bruce Springsteen, or at least someone a bit more working class. London Calling, Bank Robber, and indeed about two thirds of the tracks here are pretty much untouchable as singles, sometimes in spite of themselves as with The Magnificent Seven with its pitiful yelping rap, and Train in Vain which I'm fairly sure was used in some eighties film wherein Michael J. Fox teaches the squares and adults a thing or two about what it's like to be young; and the rest aren't too bad, by and large, excepting the fucking dreadful Hitsville UK and a few other eighties atrocities which I imagine to be from the same period.

The Clash still sound to me like the one punk band whose compact discs would be allowed anywhere near Jeremy Clarkson's Lamborghini, and they were probably to blame for inventing white reggae when there was actually nothing wrong with the existing black reggae, and for every single album released in 1978 featuring a token reggae number towards the end of side one, although I suppose that's forgiveable on the grounds that The Ruts were great - not least because they probably did it better. If I consider all of the punk bands I ever liked, The Clash will almost always be the very last on the list,
below even Chron Gen and others whose names I can barely remember these days; with just one imaginary chart position elevating them above complete crap like Green Day and those pretty fly for a white guy wankers; but for all of this, there really are times when The Clash sounded like the best thing in the world and it makes perfect sense that they should be so eulogised by so many, and those times tend to arise whilst their songs are playing and all of the above is reduced to a whining irrelevance.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Plasmatics - New Hope for the Wretched (1980)

This was originally pressed on splatter effect coloured vinyl as I recall, which even in 1980, wasn't quite enough to part me from my pocket money. I hadn't heard the music, but of course I was curious, having read about the band's gigs in Sounds, a music paper very much at the forefront of ladies' breasts flopped out on stage photojournalism and thus of obvious interest to both the Plasmatics' manager and a growing lad like myself. The Plasmatics were promoted as the most outrageous punk group of all time, which almost worked providing you understood outrage to be the central purpose of punk rock, which it wasn't. They smashed television sets, blew up cars, and cut guitars in half on stage with a chainsaw whilst Wendy O. Williams delighted gentlemen music connoisseurs in the audience by modelling a range of bras made from shaving foam, insulation tape, or two clothes pegs. Incredibly, considering the state of my hormones at the time, this still wasn't enough for me. They just seemed too ridiculous, patently trying too hard, and far too close to the Kenny Everett idea of punk rock; and they were on Stiff Records, the once decent label that had seemingly become home to a series of dreadful novelty records made by men burping quietly to themselves in pubs; and all the spectacle, smashing stuff on stage as a supposed statement against the evils of consumerism, just like Gene Simmons breathing fire in two foot high-heel boots was a statement against the evils of erm... tall people and flames.

It's taken thirty-four years, but curiosity has eventually got the better of me, and to my surprise the Plasmatics actually aren't too bad, even without boobs or explosions to enhance the listening experience. Wendy never really sang so much as grunted along in tribute to the Cookie Monster, roughly like any female comedian you care to name doing that voice which represents the macho arsehole. Musically, they were, I suppose, The Damned with a touch of the Status Quo about them, and a sort of pounding rockabilly beat ploughing along at the kind of pace that leads to heart trouble in later life; and so Wendy's grunting fits quite well.

I'm not sure if anyone would ever have heard of them were it not for boobs and explosions, although that would have been a shame, and more the fault of the music business than the band. In the Plasmatics favour, this is actually a pretty good album for those too pissed off to enjoy the Ramones, with whom they share a similar sort of energy. Lyrically, it isn't quite fuck off fuck off fuck off fuck off fuck off fuck off fuck off fuck off fuck off fuck off fuck off fuck off fuck off fuck off stick it up your arse for forty-five minutes, although at times it feels like it might be, and I wouldn't want to live in a world which didn't have a place for that sort of thing.

I get the impression it went somewhat downhill after this - if you can imagine that - and I'm not sure who would have wanted to listen to the six track Metal Priestess EP - also included here - given that Iron Maiden already existed and did that sort of thing about a billion times better; and eventually and tragically, Wendy O. Williams was no more, taking her own life in 1998 following a series of previous unsuccessful suicide attempts. She left a note which read:

I don't believe that people should take their own lives without deep and thoughtful reflection over a considerable period of time. I do believe strongly, however, that the right to do so is one of the most fundamental rights that anyone in a free society should have. For me, much of the world makes no sense, but my feelings about what I am doing ring loud and clear to an inner ear and a place where there is no self, only calm.

I get the impression that there was probably a great deal more to the woman than boobs and explosions, and had she not made her way in an industry which seemingly expected such things, the story would maybe either have had a happier ending, or might still be in progress. Oh well.

New Hope for the Wretched is an almost unfeasibly stupid album, but not a bad one by any stretch.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Parquet Courts - Light Up Gold (2012)

I know nothing of this group other than that some bloke on facebook, specifically the bloke who suggested I might enjoy the Sleaford Mods - and was right, seemed to regard them as a good thing. It sounded decent enough to me, so I bought the CD in order to listen to it on my discman like the caveman I am with my flared trousers and furniture moulded from orange plastic spheres. I still don't care too much for downloads, having had endless problems with the one iPod I own, and generally preferring physical objects, partially because with the effort necessary for the production and distribution of a compact disc or vinyl album, most artists will at least try to make sure the material is of such quality as to justify that effort. At least that's the theory.

Light Up Gold could probably have been recorded at any point between now and 1978 or thereabouts, so I suppose might be deemed to be of a kind with obvious appeal to those who, like myself, prefer the good old days back when everything was better than it is now. This initially sets off my alarm bells being as I'm generally sceptical of nostalgia industries, particularly those which dress like it's still 1972 and pluck at an acoustic guitar in order to sell expensive yoghurts; but whatever Parquet Courts do, whoever they may be and whatever it is they're playing at, they're good enough to short circuit such prejudices.

The cover is one of those casually scribbled jobs designed by Mark E. Smith doodling on the cover of one of his own Fall albums, or thereabouts, and the music is recorded in keeping with this aesthetic - basic, but not so basic as to be making any sort of self-conscious lo-fi statement. It's New York guys kicking up a tuneful din in their garage, but thankfully nothing like the fucking Strokes. I've a feeling Parquet Courts may sound a little like Pavement, except the only Pavement I recall hearing was chopped up and sampled by dj n-wee for The Slack Album, a version of The Black Album by Jay-Z which was, I thought, significantly better than the original. So, lacking qualifications to make comparisons with Pavement, Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers seem the next obvious parallel thanks to that chugging, breezy, enthusiasm, sort of like Velvet Underground without the whining. Then again, wafting a Jilly Goolden hand across the speaker, I'm getting a sort of Rockabilly version of REM before they turned into U2, countrified bits of early Devo, a caffeinated Beck with more sincerity, even The DBs if anyone remembers them, and it would be nice to think that somebody did. Listening closer still, Light Up Gold sounds like none of these things, but rather seems to be its own animal - a fairly accurate evocation of the sheer joy of being in a band, so far as I recall, and yet existing in 2014 without this representing a contradiction. I hate people who say things like a good tune will never go out of style, but Jesus this is a great record.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Twiztid - The Green Book (2002)

Whichever way you look at it, Insane Clown Posse are one fuck of a tough sell outside of their admittedly huge core group of fans, not least because they probably should have called it a day with the first Wraith album, quitting whilst they were ahead. Understood by the uninformed to be some sort of Insane Clown Posse tribute act, Twiztid are therefore amongst those groups least likely to ever make it onto the cover of The Wire. That fifty-year old middle-class white guy boldly declaring Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions... to be the greatest rap album ever recorded, like he's really gone out on a limb, striking against the downpression in stating such a minority view, and partially because it's the only one he's heard - he would never listen to Twiztid, not even if somehow obliged to do so at gunpoint. He'd rather eat his own sphincter sautéed in white wine.

Although it's certainly true that they jump about on stage grabbing their men's bits whilst painted up as zombie variations on ICP's clown make-up for the edification of a grunting multitude of fans of whom less than 40% will ever study philosophy at either Yale or Harvard, the music of Twiztid really needs to be assessed on its own merits, to which end it probably doesn't get much better than The Green Book.

In fact, fuck it - it probably doesn't get much better than The Green Book in the context of albums ever recorded, never mind just the oeuvre of Madrox and Monoxide, as those responsible are identified.

To first dispel a few unfortunate misunderstandings, Twiztid are indeed two white guys doing rap music. White guys doing rap music can often be a bad idea, particularly if they waste too much time going on about being white guys doing rap music, overcompensating either by getting angrier and more dysfunctional than thou - as Eminem has done on occasion - or more self-important than thou as with many of those backpack types, each last one as wearily edumacational as Blue Peter presenters with their caps twisted backwards; and of course, there's also the just plain crap like the Kottonmouth Kings. That said, rap ability is not dependent on racial heritage and for every embarrassing wanker there's usually someone who vaguely knows what they're doing, and occasionally that someone will turn out to have the talent of a Haystak, an El-P, or these two, whose success can be attributed to their recording what they want to hear rather than necessarily what they think we might want to hear.

Twiztid extend toes across that rap-rock divide from time to time, probably because they feel like it, but they're at their strongest with this kind of thing which, for the sake of trying to stuff it all into a single sentence, is sort of like Mellow Gold-era Beck off his tits on some fairly nasty hallucinogenics and going nuts with the Halloween dressing up box, but funnier and a lot scarier. It's hard to believe that something which works so hard at taking a steady stream of custard pies in the face could sound quite this intense, but even interspersed with the gobbets of the sort of drivel that kept Beavis & Butthead gurgling along, there are parts of The Green Book which make Joy Division sound positively breezy. This probably isn't what you would expect from rap that spends quite so much time lost in talk of weed and boobs, but judge ye not...

I was recently annoyed on facebook by a person responding to the incident of twenty people stabbed at a Pennsylvania High School with the crowing observation of how much worse it would have been had the individual concerned owned a gun. So in other words, now even tragedies with no firearm involved may be legitimately used to score points by advocates of gun control as opposed to - just off the top of my head - acknowledging the possibility that such incidents might be a mental health issue relating more to the kind of carnivorous capitalist society America has become than simply because there are guns involved. Similarly, whilst it may be all very well to inform black clad teenagers that they're not living in Rwanda and therefore, by some definition, have it relatively easy, this doesn't really address the problem any more than the impossible dream of banning guns and somehow implementing such a ban. What might be helpful, I tentatively suggest, is for our society to at least try to have some sort of dialogue with itself as opposed to overloading everyone with unrealistic and even undesirable expectations; because - to get to the point - at least one side of that dialogue, or a significant voice therein, probably sounds like this album. The World is Hell and Marsh Lagoon, for two examples, cut far deeper than any of the usual whining emo stuff, not least for the sharp contrast of sarcasm and slapstick black humour even before we come to the weirdly empowering Fat Kidz which is as good and riotous an argument as I've ever heard for the more generously built to keep sight of their self-esteem.

Off the chain, off the scale, I ain't watching no weight,
I'm at the barbecue, high as hell, fixing a plate,
XX to the XL, hit me three times,
Come correct with my burger and fries, they're king-size.

The Green Book really needs to be heard. The lyricism is fucking exceptional, it sounds like no other album, and there's far too much here to describe in a couple of paragraphs. The associations with ICP, or its being too far removed in spirit from some record that came out thirty years ago will be too great an obstacle for some, but mostly people who wouldn't understand and therefore don't really matter. Its authenticity, for those who believe they have an understanding of such things, should be clear from guest appearances by E-40, Esham, Layzie Bone, and Tech N9ne, and from the quality of their respective verses going some way beyond mere rap for hire. I don't care how stupid it sounds on paper, this is one of the greatest albums ever recorded, a genuine classic.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Throbbing Gristle - Part Two: The Endless Not (2007)

I discovered Throbbing Gristle when Graham and I - Graham being my best friend at school - would sneak into his older brother's room to gaze with great wonderment upon the punk rock records therein, the ones with all the swearing and the street credibility words; and even better was that it wasn't all punk rock either - Alternative TV, Here & Now, The Residents, Faust, Wreckless Eric, All Skrewed Up by Skrewdriver from before they took to experimenting with racism as a medium, and Throbbing Gristle who had the most entertainingly disgusting band name in the world. We listened to a bit of his brother's Best of Throbbing Gristle Volume II tape, and I was immediately fascinated by this music which sounded like a factory assembly line chugging away whilst some guy whined on about Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. I'd probably been primed to enjoy this sort of thing by the grating electronic soundtrack of certain 1970s Doctor Who episodes, although that didn't occur to me at the time.

I quickly became a Throbbing Gristle convert, buying up every bit of vinyl or tape I could get my hands on, reading whatever material was out there, the interviews in Sounds or Re/Search magazine. Genesis P. Orridge, the singer - or at least vocalist - of the group, seemed to articulate all that good anti-establishment stuff I already recognised from punk rock, but with greater wit, and a more developed sense of art; and I couldn't get enough of it, which worked out well because as it turned out P. Orridge was barely able to do so much as spend a penny without declaring it a subversive and playful challenge to some convention or other. The man never shut up, and being fifteen, I found it immensely entertaining, even inspiring. It was fascinating, just waiting to see what he would come out with next.

One version of the story has it that Throbbing Gristle split in 1981 precisely because P. Orridge just couldn't shut up, and at least two of the others were beginning to resent his presuming to speak for the entire group, and at having apparently become his backing band. Whatever the case may have been, so far as P. Orridge was concerned, once the first couple of Psychic TV albums appeared it became obvious that the jig was up as he revealed himself to be a man whose work was only ever as interesting as whoever he was stood next to at the time - Alex Ferguson, Dave Ball, Fred Giannelli or whoever. The supposedly revolutionary insight which had so impressed me when I was at school turned out to be nothing more profound than a sort of postmodern Tourette syndrome, an endless fountain of pseudo-Situationist word salad for which there was no off button, all content secondary to the myth of Genesis P. Orridge, controversial author of A Funny Thing Happened to Me on the Way to William Burroughs' House. I had imagined him as some great bringer of wisdom, the one to truly see through the bullshit veil of societal conditioning, but it turned out that he really just wanted to be Lou Reed, stood in one room feigning indifference to the knowledge of everyone in the next room discussing his genius.

Well, that's how it has looked to me since about 1981, and the testimony of at least Fiona Russell Powell seems to support the impression I picked up from a number of mutual acquaintances whose lives have intersected with that of himself, not least various members of the more interesting, supposedly unauthorised and later incarnation of TOPY. The acronym stood for the Temple of Psychic Youth, which was ostensibly an international network of like-minded persons with an interest in challenging art, the occult, philosophy and the like. In practice it turned out to be more or less a fan club for P. Orridge, its founder. I ignored TOPY on the grounds that by 1985 I was already bored shitless of the number 23 and its attendant pseudo-mystical bollocks, paying attention only when the organisation began to evolve into something more interesting in the early 1990s under the guidance of a group who had taken it upon themselves to rescue TOPY from its absentee father figure; at which juncture P. Orridge, the voice of playful subversion and unrestricted artistic liberty turned into Phil Collins getting testy over uncleared samples and intellectual copyright. He wasn't about to let anyone get their mitts on his fan club, even though it wasn't a fan club, obviously.

So, to condense all of the above to a single, simple point: I've never felt quite so let down, even so betrayed by a famous person whom I've never met turning out to be just some hat-wearing self-involved bozo as with P. Orridge; so there may be a certain embittered fervour to my poor regard of the man, and perhaps even some bias; so I'm just letting you know.

I found most Psychic TV dull to the point of being unlistenable, lacking imagination, and musically pedestrian - a well-meaning but definitively past-it youth club leader speeding his tits off and trying too hard to appear mysterious. I never really warmed to Coil either. Their music just wasn't that exciting, and it seemed like they might have done better just releasing lists of whatever droning occult tedium they had been researching that week. Of all former members of Throbbing Gristle, Chris and Cosey at least managed to make some decent records, although personally I began to find it all sounding a little samey by the time of 1991's, Pagan Tango. It just didn't give the impression that they were enjoying themselves.

Anyway, Throbbing Gristle always struck me as the most unlikely of reunions. Even in the studio, their music seemed so firmly of the moment that a twenty-first century revival would surely be pointless - playing Persuasion once again like Showaddywaddy invoking the flaccid spirit of Carl Perkins and Elvis; or worse - a Chris and Cosey record with P. Orridge crooning about having a wank over the top. I bought Part Two expecting it to be shite, nevertheless overpowered by my own curiosity...

...and as I suppose we all know by now, against all odds, it actually sort of worked; thanks to no effort made in tribute to the past, excepting perhaps in the cover photograph of Mount Kailash, a sacred Tibetan site to which people of all faiths make their spiritual pilgrimages, if that isn't too wild or wacky a metaphor. The technology is all new and generally far beyond the toys used last time these four were all together in the same room, but the spirit remains roughly what the fuck, let's see what happens when I press this, and so we have something technologically resembling Nine Inch Nails whilst sounding exactly like the record Throbbing Gristle made after Journey Through A Body, and most importantly it sounds mostly just as strange and powerful and as full of surprises as they ever did, with not so much as a whiff of Mick and Keith chugging through a geriatric Satisfaction for the ten millionth time.

That said, P. Orridge, formerly the weird and slightly disturbing pixie who somehow made it all work has ended up the weakest link, having since submitted fully to his own outsider celebrity status. He could never really sing, but it was easier to forgive him back when he was at least aware of this and didn't bother trying. As such, the better tracks here seem to be those on which the P. Orridge voice is reduced to a sound source; less so songs like Almost A Kiss wherein everyone is obliged to accommodate our kid's belief in himself as Marlene Dietrich, and which sounds like some old dosser howling away outside a pub in Huddersfield at two in the morning; but I suppose it's preferable to crooning requests for stamped addressed envelopes full of manly sex tadpoles.

On reflection, it's probably for the best that this wasn't going to go much further - referring here to the split prior to Peter Christopherson's tragic and untimely passing - given that good things tend not to endure. There was always something magical about the combination of these four people, and it seems a minor miracle that it should come around a second time without falling on its arse; and given Chris and Cosey being the two with the actual ideas, I really should have a look at what they've been doing these past few decades, shouldn't I?