Thursday, 25 September 2014

Bow Wow Wow - Girl Bites Dog (1993)

Ah - Malcolm McLaren: the madcap orange genius so often portrayed as a fiendishly playful post-Situationist mash up of Fagin and Guy Debord, and yet actually just a bit of a fucking twat, a failed art student who would have happily buggered himself with a sink splodger on national television if he thought there was a chance it might increase the stock of his fame by association; a manager of such talent that he failed to do anything interesting with the New York Dolls, saw the Sex Pistols as the next Bay City Rollers, and somehow bifurcated the band which had recorded the genuinely astonishing Dirk Wears White Sox into two considerably less interesting parts. What a fucking prick he was.

That said, I very much bought into Bow Wow Wow at the time, most of which was probably down to the band rather than the supposed tentacular influence of Gingerbollocks. However, as a grown man approaching fifty, they now sound quite different to my elderly ears, not least because I hadn't heard any of this stuff since I sold the cassettes to my friend Eggy back in 1982. Being fifteen at the time and somewhat slow on the uptake, the sexualisation of then fourteen-year old Annabella Lwin didn't seem that big a deal to me being as I knew a number of fourteen-year old girls and understood that they themselves very much enjoyed the Hunks in Trunks photo features in Jackie magazine. I took Your Cassette Pet into school because Miss Davies encouraged us to provide background music for our art lesson. It proved quite popular, and all the girls chortled at the orgasmic squeaking on Sexy Eiffel Towers, and that didn't seem like a big deal either; yet with hindsight, I find it difficult to listen to these songs without turning into Hank Hill, Louis Quatorze for example:

With his gun in my back, I start to undress.
You just don't mess with Louis Quatorze.
He's my partner in this crime of happiness,
'cause I'm just fourteen!
Oh I love it when he says so seriously,
With his gun in my back, 'Honey, make love to me.'

Oh la la - shagging an under-age kid at gunpoint, c'est tres romantique; and just to be absolutely clear on this, yes I'm being sarcastic. Given the sexual subject matter that once kept Adam Ant in square meals and pointy shoes before he got famous and ended up as Basil Brush's straight man, I can look past most of Bow Wow Wow's songs as either representative of the thoughts of at least some teenage girls, and valid in a sort of Max Ernst sense. That is to specifically say that they just about got away with it in the name of art, I suppose; but it's a tougher sell when you factor in the McLaren angle and recall that all of this ran parallel to his efforts to start a pornographic magazine for school age kids informatively entitled Chicken. I recall him coming on the radio to explain how children are sexual beings who love to hang around and pose and appear sexy, which may be daring, adventurous, and subversive, or may all be just a bit too close to Jimmy fucking Savile for comfort.

Now then, now then, now then...

Thankfully Chicken never happened because McLaren was basically a twat who couldn't organise a piss-up in a brewery, or at very best an extremely lucky twat who couldn't organise a piss-up in a brewery; and so while his influence on Bow Wow Wow can certainly be heard, you can sort of ignore it. Annabella Lwin may not have been the greatest vocalist but she could hold a tune and yelped with conviction; and led astray or otherwise, this was still in essence the band who had recorded Dirk Wears White Sox. The affectations sound comical with hindsight - Native Americanisms apparently borrowed from old episodes of The Lone Ranger coupled with tribal sounds that may as well have scored films in which blacked-up actors point at cauldrons rubbing their tummies and smiling at their white captives; but it works as a sort of African influenced rockabilly, as music designed to sound great at a party without any real concession to any other context; and Gold He Said and I Want My Baby on Mars at least are genuinely fine songs.

I've an uncomfortable feeling that either Bow Wow Wow or someone of their ilk is ultimately to blame for the pervasive aesthetic of the scene in that crappy Matrix film with the big underground rebel cave and like everyone's grooving and raving to this like really wicked music and like they all have dreads and awesome tatts and like everyone's like off their faces, man, and it's like totally amaaazing... which probably isn't Bow Wow Wow's fault, at least not directly; and strangely it's W.O.R.K. which annoys me the most of all these songs in respect to subject, it being a nebulous critique of the work ethic predicated on the thesis that it's a drag having to do stuff which isn't like rilly cool 'n' shit, yeah? Conversely, I myself tend to regard the work ethic as a fairly healthy impulse which prevents one turning into a useless slack-jawed wanker, so again I must take the Hank Hill position, I tell you what.

Most surprising of all is that these songs sound pretty much the same on fancy compact disc as they did on my crap mono portable cassette player as taped off a medium wave radio station in 1982, which is to say that the production is unflattering and simple, but not even simple in the sense of Billy Childish cranking something out in front of a single microphone and it still making Led Zeppelin sound like Scott McKenzie. Had McLaren really had anything going for him in managerial terms, he might have spent less time trying to generate controversy and a little more making sure his band were getting their money's worth in the recording studio. So I say again, what a fucking prick he was.

Bow Wow Wow had much to recommend them, but none of it directly their manager's doing, and thirty years later, there's a portion of this compact disc which still makes me feel bad on behalf of everyone involved.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Fiend - The Addiction (2006)

If ever proof were needed that the millennial success of New Orleans' No Limit Records was more luck than judgement, one need look no further than the bewildering estrangement of Fiend. I don't really care who failed to buy who a pint and a packet of cheese and onion crisps when it was their round; any label with its head screwed on would have moved heaven, earth, and all the damp bits in the middle to keep a rapper of this calibre on its books.

For those to whom the name may be unfamiliar, Fiend is a burping rap bullfrog, a voice full of bluesy gravel that's very much an instrument in its own right, in addition to which he's also a decent lyricist - definitely one of the southern greats in my estimation - and a formidable producer.

Anyway, I was quite excited - all those thousands of years ago - when this album was first announced as forthcoming from Ruff Ryders being as the New York label seemed like it might be a perfect fit for our boy, what with him having the kind of jagged edge that would perfectly complement the likes of DMX, the LOX and so on; but for whatever reason, The Addiction eventually came out on his own Fiend Entertainment label. We didn't get any of those weird Swizz Beatz rhythms as anticipated, and it's all kept very much Louisiana style with production divided mainly between Fiend himself and his former No Limit stable-mates, Beats By The Pound reborn here as the Medicine Men, but there's nothing to inspire disappointment.

Given the geography, it's become something of a cliché to describe this sort of thing as a gumbo, but you can hear why. The Medicine Men always had a distinctive sound, albeit one that became a little too familiar during their stay at No Limit, particularly during that era when it seemed like Master P decided that even the fucker who cleaned his pool probably had an album in him somewhere; but unburdened of the requirement to turd out four albums a week, and so allowed to create at a less demanding pace, the boys found their mojo once again. Everything is thrown in: tinkly piano, soulful guitar, brush drums, gun shots, cheap orchestral stabs and the sort of bass that makes you ill if you listen to it for too long; grooves are formed rather than songs as such, but weird grooves quite clearly cohered under the influence of something or other - not quite the sort of tunes one would find in nature. None of this will be unfamiliar to anyone who ever heard a track produced by this bunch, but they really go some strange and unfamiliar places on this album, at least as close as this sort of dirty, sweat-soaked menace ever came to early Pink Floyd with these tracks of mushroomy psychedelia or NyQuil-fuelled trains of meandering thought.

Oddly, I'm not even sure this is Fiend's greatest album, and it probably could have done with a change of pace here and there just to break things up a little, but three classics - Want It All, Thugg'n and Drugg'n, and Oprah - are nothing to be sniffed at, particularly as part of an album conspicuously lacking in weak material, and one that still sounds so different to others of its kind.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

The Sound - Jeopardy / From the Lion's Mouth / All Fall Down ...Plus (2014)

Here's an odd one, at least from where I've been stood. I was most certainly sentient between 1980 and 1982 - spanning the original release dates of these three albums - and not only was I sentient, but I was possibly at the most rabidly teenaged stage of my record collecting, a period during which I could pick even a Classix fucking Nouveaux album from the rack and wonder to myself what it sounded like. These years also happened to be the only time of my life during which I managed to keep diaries going right through until December. I'm presently transcribing some of these diaries for my own entertainment, and I have in particular noted firstly just how much I obsessed over certain bands at that age, and secondly, how little sense any of the rest of it makes thirty years down the line. I have therefore found myself having to look up quite a lot of stuff on the internets and the Googles in order to work out what the hell I was writing about, and it is during one such search that YouTube suggested I might also like to have a listen to New Dark Age by the Sound on the grounds of my watching something else that had happened in the same year. The cover art of both Jeopardy and From the Lion's Mouth - the first two albums - looked vaguely familiar, but I had never heard of the Sound. Then I recalled them as the band which had appeared on the front of issue seventeen of Alternative Sounds, the Coventry based fanzine produced by Martin of Attrition and which had been mentioned on Look! Hear! on the telly and everything. I went to the vault to investigate, but it was actually a band called the Silence who had appeared on said cover. Sound and silence - I suppose you can see how I might get them confused. Anyway, I recalled New Dark Age as something once recorded by SPK - a satisfyingly portentous title if ever there was - and so I clicked on the video to see what these Sound lads had been about.

A week later, I've developed such an obsession that I'm making my way through the four discs of this reissue of their first three albums, playing them over and over and over, and I'm seriously fucking bewildered as to how this bunch somehow escaped my attention. How they slipped past my teenage radar I will never know, given that they weren't particularly obscure, as indicated by the John Peel sessions and BBC Live in Concert bonus disc included here. The only explanation I have is that the Sound only exist in retrospect, their entire career having been retrofitted to the early eighties by some time-active power.

The excessive ghastitude of my flabber is down to the Sound being so much the distillation of everything I loved at the age of fifteen in musical terms that it seems inconceivable that I should only discover them now, three decades later. I suppose you might describe them as a cross between Wire and Joy Division with more of a power pop sensibility; except the more you listen, the poorer a fit such comparisons seem; and was there really ever a half decent band who suffered those Joy Division comparisons aside from Joy Division themselves? Maybe it would be better to suggest the Sound were quite clearly sprung from that same well of emotionally volatile post-punk which yielded Echo & the Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes and U2 - before they turned into Rio Tinto-Zinc - but then the Sound clearly pissed all over those bands too. Maybe the Sound were how we all hoped New Order would turn out, how New Order might have been had they not spunked up the entirety of their potential on that first album.

Well whatever, the Sound are - or I suppose were - sparse, punchy, tuneful, and intense, the song writing is of such absurdly powerful quality as to mean there's not a single track to be skipped amongst these four discs. Almost everything here could have been a hit single had we not been distracted by all the other shit that was around at the time, Bauhaus and the Cure and all those other sucked-in cheeks tosspots who somehow managed to forge out careers without a single decent album to their names. I Can't Escape Myself, Contact the Fact, Winning, Sense of Purpose, Party of the Mind, Monument, Calling the New Tune, Skeletons, Unwritten Law - one of those rare wonders wherein the bassline seems to bear no relation to the rest of the song and yet it all fits together with absolute perfection of intent, and Missiles - one of the most emotionally powerful anti-nuclear songs I've heard... all air-punchingly fine; and after a while you realise there's not much joy in picking out individual tracks, there being nothing which lowers the average, not even the four rare tracks recorded with Kevin Hewick who at first sounds like one of those horrible sub-Bowie types from some mushroom tea based Canterbury group. Even the live material sounds amazing, which is something very few groups ever managed on disc, in my view.

After three weeks of this lot on heavy rotation, I had to force myself to pack away the box and listen to something else. Absurd though it may seem, the Sound were just too good, too powerful. Never mind hairs stood up on the back of the neck, some of this stuff was beginning to bring tears to my eyes. I'm slightly fucked off that it's taken me thirty years to discover this group - particularly considering the tripe I've endured in a similar vein which isn't anything like so good - but better late than never.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Wire - Manscape (1990)

I'm not quite sure why I don't have more by Wire. I can appreciate them for sure, but for some reason, for all their dazzling brilliance, I've never found myself actively seeking out their records. Consequently those objects I do possess tend to have been picked up in bargain bins because it was Wire and it was cheap and I couldn't quite work out why I'd never got around to buying the thing when it came out. Manscape found its way to me by a friend in England who sends me money by converting pound notes into dollar bills at the bank, and then concealing these within the casing of a compact disc which he sticks in the mail. He lives off the grid, as the expression has it, without anything resembling a bank account, and this really is the easiest way for him to pay me for services rendered. He's also a fan of Wire, but I imagine this one wasn't so much to his liking.

Apparently recorded under the increased influence of dance music as it stood around the close of the eighties, Manscape differs from other Wire releases in sounding very much like they knocked it out in a studio recently vacated by Duran Duran. It has that same drum machine sound, those same McGeochisms in the guitar department, and a suggestion of brightly coloured suits with shoulder pads and promotional videos with everyone doing that eighties dance in which you keep your elbows still whilst jerking your quiff from side to side; but, it's still Wire, and it sounds like Wire. It took a good few plays before I stopped asking myself what is this shit?, but I got there eventually.

Obviously it's not a patch on Chairs Missing, but it's not actually bad once you get past the cognitive dissonance, and arguably constitutes a worthy exercise in seeing if gold can be wrought from the sort of hairspray fuelled production which keeps threatening to break into Addicted to Love; and surprisingly it can, although maybe not so surprisingly as I suppose PIL and Simple Minds usually managed the same trick well enough. Manscape is further aided by Wire's peculiarly self-aware lyrical concerns falling somewhere between those of David Byrne and Laurie Anderson, and the simple fact of there being some fucking great arrangements on here, particularly on Where's the Deputation? and What Do You See? both of which have more than a whiff of Severed Heads about them.

Thinking about it, Manscape feels like the work of a band who've just discovered Come Visit the Big Bigot in some respects, which can only be a good thing, even if it's not necessarily the first reason why you might want to buy a record by Wire.