Thursday, 26 November 2015

The Jam - Compact Snap! (1983)

I fucking loved the Jam, but never felt compelled to buy any of their music at the time because pocket money was limited and I could usually count on at least three of my friends at school to have bought the record before I'd even heard it was out; and then four albums later it all turned to shite, and shite of such a powerful stench as to sour the thought of ever owning anything touched by the hand of Weller. Nevertheless, thirty years have passed, which has proven sufficient to dim vague memories of the Style Council and the Cappuccino Kid, allowing that earlier era of general brilliance to once again shine through, and specifically to shine a ray directly into my eye just as I'm stood in the CD & DVD Exchange on Broadway.

'Bloody hell,' I say to myself, because I haven't thought about the Jam in a long, long time.

Compact Snap! is the truncated CD version of a vinyl double album of greatest hits, and for the first sixteen tracks it's sheer bliss; well, maybe fourteen tracks, because Start! only really qualifies as okay, and I probably haven't needed to hear That's Entertainment since about 2002 by which point it was the only song being played on at least three London radio stations; let's say up to and including Funeral Pyre, the last truly great Jam single.

These tracks are the Jam as I prefer to remember them, a real band as opposed to just a vehicle for Weller's growing sense of his own genius, sharp and punky yet well-dressed both sartorially and musically, and angry without being a dick about it. There's something very uplifting about even horror stories such as Down in the Tube Station at Midnight and The Eton Rifles, and then there's Smithers-Jones which was just about the greatest song of 1979, possibly the entire decade. Essentially they were a soul band with a punky dynamic.

Of course it all went tits up as Weller slowly became his own Tony Hancock impersonation, indirectly encouraging a thousand horrible Cromwellian imitators like Dennis Greaves' The Truth, all desperately wishing it could be 1966 again and that we didn't have to endure homosexual drag clowns playing their synthesiser disco on Top of the Pops. There are a couple of songs I'd thankfully forgotten on Compact Snap!, mostly those sounding like every other record of 1982 to feature a sweaty bloke with a crewcut in one of those German military vests parping away on a trumpet; and Town Called fucking Malice from that film about big-hearted yet rootsy northerners overcoming Thatcherism and their own northernly shortcomings by embracing ballet, proper culture and listening to Radio 4 a bit more often. The last five hits on this collection suck so hard that they sound kind of lost isolated from their natural habitat of a Now That's What I Deem To Be Music compilation sandwiched between Charlene's I've Never Been To Me and Blue fucking Rondo a la Turk; probably best to think of them as early Style Council rather than late Jam; and then of course there was Weller refusing to speak to the other two for the next couple of decades...


Let's just remember them as they were, as they still sound on In the City, All Around the World, and all the others, young and fucking brilliant.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Dr. Dre - Compton (2015)

I have this theory which I've been developing over the last couple of years; well, not so much a theory as a classification, and one which I'm trying hard to convince myself is completely different to representatives of my father's generation sniffily insisting that the Sex Pistols weren't music. The theory is that at some point during the last decade, or maybe a little before, music bifurcated into two distinct families with very little in common beyond mutual transmission by means of sound waves, the families being that which we already understand as encompassed by the term music, and the new thing which I'll call post-music; and yes I am aware how closely this resembles those Dizzy Rasclaats you listen to, that's just noise.

Music, as we already understand it is, for the sake of argument, immersive - we go to the gig or we sit listening to the record and reading the cover as it plays. These are broad generalisations, but the core point is that the individual engages fairly directly with whatever they are listening to, at least some of the time, regardless of what it sounds like or what its constituent elements may be. Post-music is generally anything released since about 1995 which makes you feel either old, or like grabbing the monosyllabic little fuckers responsible by the scruff of their necks and rubbing their noses in it so they know not to do it again. Post-music is often easily identified by a ton of autotune, arcade game sounds, a certain ravey quality synonymous with music which could only have been composed by moving waveforms around on a screen, a general sentiment amounting to awesome, dude, and compositions equating to weird flavours beloved of small children which don't actually occur anywhere in nature, bubble-gum ice cream and so on. There's also a certain inability to distinguish quality from shite leading to disastrous results when combined with a weird view of nostalgia as positive in and of itself, hence fifteen-year old laptop prodigies synthesising Elton John or the dynamic of the Electric Light Orchestra.

The thing is, to be fair, post-music isn't really about the music so much as a projected memeplex of which the music is just one minor component. Post-music is for playing on your phone through a shitty speaker, not so much for your direct enjoyment as for the pleasure you may take from visibly associating yourself with the music as others pass by; in other words it may as well be a t-shirt with an awesome logo. The music is unimportant outside what it says about you to others. Similarly, the music will, without exception, have a video accompaniment, and the video accompaniment and that which it communicates will be at least as important as the song, and often more so.

Post-music artists include, I would suggest, LMFAO, Lady Gaga whoever shat out that Cha Cha Slide shit, We Are Young by Fun, and about a million others I can't bear to think about. It isn't that it's all a big pile of useless shite, but that it isn't music by terms I recognise even if music is an element; and this is why anything involving autotune is nearly always bollocks.

Okay, maybe not always, but I'll come back to that.

I've lost track of what happened to Detox, the long-awaited and never to arrive follow up to Dre's 2001 album. I gather a load of the tracks have turned up here and there but the man himself was never really happy with it and so called it a day and just popped this one out on the spur of the moment, almost certainly inspired by all that was stirred up during the making of the film Straight Outta Compton, at least if the intensely reflective lyrical content is anything to go by. It's paid off too, in so much as this sounds like a record which someone enjoyed making, or at least enjoyed making presumably more than he enjoyed wittling away at Detox for the last fifteen years.

Most surprising I suppose is that it doesn't sound anything like the Dre with which we are familiar, or at least it doesn't until the initial shock passes and you notice it's actually not a million sonic miles away from some of the Eminem records he's produced in recent years. I suppose the surprise comes from my assuming those records sounded as they did because of Eminem rather than his producer. Then again, Dr. Dre's success is probably in the dramatic evolution of his sound, and it's a tough call thinking of anyone else in the music business who has endured so well, advanced so much, and yet remained pretty much true to himself. I mean The Chronic was twenty-three years ago. Can you believe that?

Compton is Dre doing what I've come to regard as post-music, and showing that actually you can pull that shit off if you just make the effort. It's not only the autotune, but the whole dynamic, arcade blips and subsonic bass, crunk snare, and For the Love of Money which could almost be Three-6-Mafia; but somehow it's done with a certain light touch which elevates it way above mere ringtone status, and then the more you listen, the more you notice the old school touches, and just how soulful this record is; and he's made Snoop sound amazing again, and Cold 187um and Xzibit are back; and even the Game and he's not just reading out a list of his fave albums for once...

Compton is an incredible album. In case anyone ever doubted it, the guy is a genius, not least for snatching that rinky-dink ringtone crap back from the kids and making it work as something real.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Nine Inch Nails - The Slip (2008)

It would probably be hyperbole to describe Nine Inch Nails as the last real rock band - not least because I wouldn't even agree with such a claim myself - but it's actually quite difficult to remember the others whilst immersed in a Nine Inch Nails album, or at least that's what I've found. I use the term rock band, because that's what either they are or he is now that all industrial music has been officially reclassified as Belgian New Beat. I realise not everyone loves Nine Inch Nails as I do, and they - or possibly he - often seem particularly subject to sneering from those openly declaring love for Coil, Ministry, or one of those other loser acts existing primarily for the purpose of giving angry loners something to declare themselves like really into so as to impress sheeplike Dorito-chugging job-having squaro-cuboid normals with just how deep and meaningful they really are; if you'll pardon my brief descent into ranting.

Nope. For all the funny noises and distortion, Trent Reznor is essentially a populist. He makes records in the hope of people listening to the fucking things and getting something from them, which actually isn't a crime; and he makes bloody good records, and fairly weird records for something having more in common with Kiss, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Pixies than fifty minutes of refrigerator hum put through a delay pedal while the bloke who used to play tambourine in Throbbing Gristle reads passages from a library book about Aleister Crowley or the latest issue of The Murder Casebook which builds week by week into a unique and comprehensive encyclopedia of homicidal nutters who aren't actually as interesting as you may initially suspect. Furthermore, The Slip is probably the least impressive of the NIN back catalogue, and yet it does the business regardless. I'm inclined to wonder whether Reznor just shits out top quality material without even thinking about it, or somewhere there's a vast mountain of all the stuff he never finished because it wasn't any good.

The Slip sounds very much like a live recording, meaning in terms of instrumentation and dynamic rather than ambient cheering and the sound of fans calling out for Nice Legs, Shame About the Face; although I may be influenced here by having watched the free DVD on which near identical versions of the same songs are performed live in studio by a full band. So it has a certain immediacy, lacking the prog rock multilayering of previous releases; not that it makes any difference because Reznor's strength is in what he does as much as how he gets there. There's something quite unique about his songs as characterised by bluesy riffs, masterful use of distortion, and a wonderful sense of tension allowing the harsh to coexist with the very fragile. In fact there's something peculiarly sensual, even sexy, about the way he pulls certain tunes together, and sexy in the same way Adam and the Ants used to be before they discovered Four Feather Falls. Discipline in particular feels like a clandestine rummage involving silk underwear of some description, regardless of all the metal, and then that bass comes in like a finger stuck abruptly up one's bumhole, but in a good way.

Just me then.

I mean seriously - Echoplex has the most 1982-sounding drum machine you've ever heard and lalalala Beach Boy harmonies, and it's still a fucking cracker. This man just doesn't give a shit, and that's what sets him apart from all those other clowns stood around pretending to inhale in the Charles Manson t-shirts their mums bought them for Christmas. I get the impression The Slip was more or less pooped out over a bank holiday weekend for the sake of something to do, but it's nevertheless yet another Nails masterpiece.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Black Sabbath - Master of Reality (1971)

Black Sabbath initially came under the heading of artists to be avoided on principal thanks to my having grown up in a rural Warwickshire town in which a preference for Joy Division - or indeed almost anything with short hair - over Tygers of Pan Tang revealed one as a bare bummer who liked men's cocks and to dress up as a woman and was definitely gay and liked gay men's cocks and liked to feel them and thought Boy George was an inspiration 'cuz you were into men's bums and arseholes and that and being as gay as possible and liking men's cocks and if someone had invented a men's gay cocks sandwich you'd be first in fucking line for a bite, you gay cunt. To be fair, it didn't have to be Tygers of Pan Tang. In fact it didn't really matter so long as it was NWOBHM and you weren't a gay bastard who liked gay men's cocks because you were gay. I'm sure you get the picture.

Despite all the aversion therapy, I eventually came to understand the distinction between certain bands - notably Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden - and all the other useless wankers with knockery vixen warrior women clogging up the covers of their shitty records - Whitesnake, Def Leppard, Krokus, Rainbow, and all that utter widdly-widdly axe solo shite. Paranoid was somehow one of the first things I learned to play on guitar, and I borrowed the single from Philip Cameron at school, and I couldn't help but notice that the b-side wasn't bad either. With hindsight I've come to realise that aside from the hair there was never that much difference between Black Sabbath and the Joy Division, whose music I enjoyed without reservation.

More recently I came across a spoken word routine by Henry Rollins in which the lad proposes that innocuously named tropical weather systems such as El NiƱo be renamed in ways more congruent with their terrible destructive power. One such rebranding would, he suggests, be the First Four Black Sabbath Albums. Weather reports would then warn us that if we should be anywhere up the east coast of Florida this evening we might want to take precautions because the First Four Black Sabbath Albums have been heating up the air down in the gulf and we're probably going to see some serious storm damage by morning. Personally I think it could work, particularly having now heard at least three of them.

Having further differentiated Black Sabbath from anything involving David bloody Coverdale, I am surprised at how simple they actually sound - very basic, just your straightforward blues rock with special emphasis on the more malevolent vibes. I vaguely recall seeing Ozzy Osbourne interviewed on some show, accounting for the formation of Black Sabbath by noting that all he heard on the radio were flower children singing about sunshine and happy times and San Francisco, whilst all he could see out of his own window was Birmingham - or words to that effect. Keeping this in mind, much as I loathe the term industrial music, I'd suggest Black Sabbath did it first. Throbbing Gristle may have aspired to being a noisier Velvet Underground or even Hawkwind, but the mood was more Sabbath than Lou Reed or anyone so self-consciously Bohemian; and as my friend Carl has pointed out, Joy Division were basically Black Sabbath - providing you ignore Closer, which should probably be a given because it was mostly rubbish - and then of course there's Swans, and all those goth bands.

The more I listen to Black Sabbath, the more I realise how difficult it is to find rock music without a trace of their influence to one degree or another. Whilst they may not exactly have introduced the bad vibe to popular music - that being an essential ingredient of the blues from which they drew one hell of a lot of inspiration - they may have been the first to pass it on without embellishment, without trying to make it sound glamorous.

I know the Paranoid album a little better, and I've only just got hold of Master of Reality, so it hasn't quite sunk in yet, but it's already very clearly on the same level, and there's a noticeable improvement in the lyrics - some of those on the previous one being decidedly ropey in places; and, as with Paranoid, it really makes you wonder how all those shitty NWOBHM bands could have got it so wrong given how the great strength of this music is its simplicity, how it made even those Sexy Pistols sound like fucking ELO in places. I wish it hadn't taken me quite so long to realise any of this, but never mind.