Thursday, 13 August 2015

Lack of Knowledge - Grey (1983)

To launch immediately into this week's dubiously relevant preamble,  I seem to have developed a passing allergy to industrial music, or at least to some of that which tends to be saddled with the term for the sake of argument. It was a facebook encounter with one of those noisy cassette types of yesteryear. We used to write to each other all the time, and he now believes unions have too much power and that Margaret Thatcher saved the country - as he put it himself. This seems entirely consistent with an emerging pattern of former avant-garde oscillator-twiddling industrial types turning into the enemy in later years, although I'm beginning to wonder if the seemingly contradictory dynamic of this development results from a misconception on my part, having once equated experimental musicians with the tradition of artistic and intellectual libertarianism as once represented by the Surrealists, for one example; when perhaps it is more the case that so many sonic pioneers have been artistically out there and on their own principally because beneath it all they're mostly ultra-conservative, deeply misanthropic loners, and even more terrified of change and the big bad world than your average Daily Mail reading shut-in. The ironic posturing, mimicking harsh or totalitarian positions perhaps wasn't always so ironic as it seemed at the time. Perhaps that tape was called Face the Firing Squad because actually they really like firing squads, regarding them as an efficient and entertaining means of dealing with lefties and trouble makers blah blah blah Ayn Rand blah blah...

Well, whatever the case, this week I'm in the mood for something far, far removed from the realm of self-important fifty-year old men logging on to see how their Monsanto stock is doing whilst composing another whining I coulda been a contender missive on the subject of a thirty-year old cassette of mains hum with a picture of Peter fucking Sutcliffe on the cover; and Grey is a long way from that. It's also a four track 7" EP which is some way outside of my usual parameters, but I listened to the album, and although excellent, it just made me want to listen to this again.

Lack of Knowledge had a heavily industrial aesthetic - black and white photographs of tower blocks, gas stations, chain-link fencing and so on - but it was something with which they were grappling, artistically speaking - as opposed to just sneering about industrial squalor being texturally interesting whilst lounging around tossing playing cards into an inverted top hat. This came out on Crass Records and is as such as good a refutation as any of the notion of the label ever having peddled the droning monochromatic tedium for which it is remembered by people who probably weren't there.

Happily, there was never much ambiguity as to the nature or general identity of the enemy with anything on the Crass label, and Lack of Knowledge distinguished themselves by going at it from quite a different angle compared to at least a few of their contemporaries. Musically they weren't really about songs so much as pieces of music comprising different movements in an almost classical or progressive sense, so there's a dynamic, but nothing so commonplace as verses or even a chorus. Oddly, this structure isn't really the first thing you notice, or at least wasn't the first thing I noticed, because musically what you generally have are variations on a fairly intense, driving, and melodic sound somewhere between Joy Division's Dead Souls and New Model Army, but without all the fighting and burping noises. It sounds like nothing else released on Crass Records.

Arguably most unusual of all, Lack of Knowledge's shunning rock tradition extended to the lyrical content as much as to that which it narrated. The lyrics - if you really want to call them lyrics - are printed in the fold-out cover, reading more like short stories than anything, there being no concession to conventional song structure, rhyme, or anything of the sort; and these are nevertheless sung and with some passion. The stories - or scenarios might be a better term - are brief dystopian tales of life in an oppressive police state, borderline science-fiction but unfortunately nothing like so far-fetched as they should be given the kind of shite our governments tend to get up to when they know there's either no-one looking, or there are sufficient numbers of people like my former pal ready to cheer them on. The sum of the parts is astonishing and possibly unique in the history of modern music, sort of like what you might have had if Joy Division had been a bit less depressing and had recorded a talking book; and weirdly it works.

Doors burst open, and machine gun death rains in on the betrayed conspirators. The remaining few confess their crimes, and when justice is done, they die. They die but the hope lives on.

One criticism I've seen made of records on the Crass label is that they have a certain didactic quality which some find off-putting, a certain utilitarian naming of names, as opposed to slapping a picture of Peter Sutcliffe's garden shed on the front and saying oooh isn't it interesting and subversive how no-one realises that they're looking at Peter Sutcliffe's garden shed. Lack of Knowledge elude this pitfall by illustrating their anti-authoritarian point in cinematic fashion rather than spelling it out by means of the in-house style of having a dog bark at a swarm of angry bees. This gives their music a tremendous and raw emotional impact. In fact, thirty years later I still find it difficult to listen to these four tracks without getting a bit of a lump in the throat, because it's surprisingly uplifting to know that whilst there are some evil, manipulative fuckers out there running the world, we are none of us alone; and Grey represented the real thing, or as close to the real thing as a vinyl record gets - something political and genuinely revolutionary.

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