Thursday, 31 December 2015

Hawkwind - Quark, Strangeness and Charm (1977)

I heard this very album played in the fifth form common room at school one lunch break thirty or so years ago, which is odd because I have no other memory of there having been a fifth form common room at my school. Similarly mysterious was the identity of the band. I assumed it was probably the Stranglers, although it wasn't a song I recognised and Hugh Cornwell's voice didn't sound quite right even though it was almost certainly him. I was surprised when I saw the cover, knowing Hawkwind to be a bunch of hippies probably sounding a bit like either Pink Floyd or Gong or one of that lot.

I'm kicking myself now of course. I'm not sure why it's taken me so long to get around to this one, although I suppose everything has its time. I probably should have taken the hint back in 2000 when Nigel Ayers of Nocturnal Emissions wrote the following in issue seven of The Sound Projector:

If you look at the whole of that so-called industrial scene from Cabaret Voltaire to Marilyn Manson, the band with the most far reaching influence wouldn't be Throbbing Gristle, but Hawkwind! This is something that they rarely mention in the press, as Hawkwind have this reputation as a British hippie band who do science-fiction and theatrics and therefore must be naff. Whereas if they were a German hippie band... Zoviet France have told me they were very keen on Hawkwind; SPK were well into Hawkwind back in Australia; and what are Graeme Revell and Brian Williams doing nowadays? Making soundtracks for science-fiction films - I rest my case! I think it's about time Hawkwind were reassessed. I have long been tired of those outfits who cite influences no-one has heard of, or can stand listening to. Back in the early seventies, Hawkwind were the first band I was aware of to popularise the idea of sonic attack, infra and ultra sound as a weapon. Listen to Sonic Attack on Space Ritual. That of course has long since been taken up by that whole noise scene, but Hawkwind were rarely acknowledged. If you look at the information war thing, you'll notice that Hawkwind had the post-modern writers, Michael Moorcock and Bob Calvert working with them. Though Moorcock is best known for his very popular science-fiction and fantasy genre work, it's more accurate to call him a postmodernist or at least a modernist. Moorcock pointed many in the direction of William Burroughs and J.G. Ballard and - stone me, he even wrote for Re/Search. When Hawkwind's In Search of Space came out in the early seventies, it came with a booklet of very similar material to what the London Psychogeographical Society, the Association of Autonomous Astronauts, Iain Sinclair, and Tom Vague have been doing more recently. Whenever I used to see Psychic TV, I thought Hawkwind. Whenever I saw Throbbing Gristle I thought Hawkwind without the lights and without the tunes. That combat clothing thing - Hawkwind! Which brings me to the point that I would definitely question the history of punk rock and weirdy music that overlaps it that media hacks have tended to spout. I remember that, apart from media darlings the Sex Pistols, the DIY punk scene in early '70s Britain seemed to be much inspired by the efforts of Hawkwind, the Edgar Broughton Band, the Pink Fairies and even Gong; and the context of the free festivals. Free festival, a self-organising proletarian cultural gathering often involving a bit of a knees up and maybe a punch up with the coppers, see also rave. Brian Eno, for example used to hang out with the Pink Fairies. The whole set-up and costuming of Roxy Music was a direct crib off Hawkwind; AMM - my arse! Eno's a popularist, otherwise why's he working with U2? In 1972 Hawkwind followed up Silver Machine - a million selling hit about a time travel machine built by the pataphysicist Alfred Jarry - with the single Urban Guerilla. It was pulled by the record company because of fears about an IRA bombing campaign in London at the time. They later re-recorded it with Johnny Rotten. Joe Strummer's 101ers and the Stranglers used to play on the same bill as Hawkwind in the free festival days, pre-1976. In interviews at the time, Strummer cited Hawkwind as an influence on the Clash's first album. Pete Shelley of The Buzzcocks admitted he spent a lot of his youth listening to Space Ritual and derived a lot of his musical direction from it; and of course Lemmy of Motorhead used to play bass in Hawkwind. Anyway, I went to see Sun Ra and his Arkestra once and I got bored after twenty minutes of that jazz shite and went home. I've seen Hawkwind loads of times and they rock!

Listening to this now, it's clear that the above is not only on point, but arguably just the tip of the iceberg, even beyond that unearthly electric chug which worked so well for Throbbing Gristle. The fact of post-Britpop Blur sounding a hell of a lot like this album, particularly The Days of the Underground, is probably only great minds thinking alike albeit a couple of decades after the fact; but this is just one of many parallels which seem to difficult to avoid. Case in point being professional industrial music arseholes claiming to have invented acid house or rave, when the established knowledge of who actually innovated such genres isn't negated by their being black guys who never went to art school; but it has to be said that the rave dynamic of extended mesmeric grooves built on riffs of weirdly crunchy sound - guitar in this case - somehow replicating the effect of coming up on a couple of disco biscuits, is very much evident on Quark, Strangeness and Charm. It's a very trippy album - which isn't a word I often use - and euphoric without the usual attendant drippiness of having to put flowers in your hair as you head off in the general direction of San Francisco. Hawkwind were rave before rave, occurring as their own near-autonomous culture in a way which sort of prefigures Crass, amongst others. Yet culturally they have a fiercely urban quality which references mainstream society, as opposed to everything being based on the world as filtered through the spout of a pot of mushroom tea. The lyrics resemble science-fiction, but then science-fiction is as good a metaphor as any for the problems of urban society, and certainly no worse than anything associating lurve with the light of silvery moons.

As with many compact disc reissues, this one is a double disc stuffed with demos, live versions, and so on. Ordinarily this sort of thing annoys the hell out of me. I want the album as it was, a discrete unit of culture with the same beginning, middle, and end, and exclusively comprising the stuff which was considered good enough to release at the time. The worst example of this sort of tendency might be the reissue of Suede's Head Music on three discs including previously unreleased material so dull that I'm surprised even the band would want to hear it ever again - rare out-takes and demos for an album which was actually kind of shit in the first place. Anyway, Quark, Strangeness and Charm turns out to be the opposite of that unfortunate bloating, which is probably testimony to the general quality of Hawkwind as an institution - extras which actually add to the experience. This is a sublime album and I'm definitely going to need more of this stuff.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Nocturnal Emissions - Duty Experiment (1995)

I find it weird to consider that this album should be twenty years old, and that even in 1995 it served to collect material from more than a decade earlier. I'm pretty sure I already sucked its dick (figuratively speaking) in an issue of The Sound Projector, back when I used to write reviews for them, but it still sounds good so fuck it...

It being 2015, Nigel Ayers should probably be living in a mansion by this point, a mansion at the end of a long road worn to dust by legions of pilgrims come to seek the advice of the wise one, but I've a feeling this probably hasn't happened despite a back catalogue of albums as long as your arm - particularly if you have very long arms - and albums which have frankly made most of the competition look shit; but people don't want the real thing. They want cunningly packaged cybernoise which makes you want to watch Blade Runner and which fits nicely on the Ikea shelving unit next to all those issues of Re/Search. Sadly or otherwise, Nocturnal Emissions were always a bit too much of a square peg to ever fit comfortably or lucratively into the round hole which opened up in their wake. I suppose people just don't like their rebellion reminding them that they are themselves commodified.

I'm talking about industrial music, in case that isn't obvious. Ordinarily I would pour scorn on the term and those who adopt it as just another tastefully distressed sales technique, but for once it sort of applies. Nocturnal Emissions always denied ever having been particularly industrial, and whilst it's true that their sonic obsessions shared little in common with either SPK or Throbbing Gristle in terms of subject, this first phase of the band - the Sterile Records years - was about as industrial as it gets. Duty Experiment comprises demos and out-takes which never made it onto vinyl back in the day, almost a lost album I suppose, and at its harshest this music resembles an industrial process, the sound of machines shorting out and breaking down - power electronics before it went all black leather Benny Hill. In all honesty, Throbbing Gristle were the Velvet Underground by comparison.

The music of Nocturnal Emissions has undergone a few changes over the years, from this factory floor racket to the more recent foreground-ambient works, but the common factor remains a sense of sounds having coalesced without human agency. It's something almost organic, far removed from the indulgence of conventional musicianship or composition, and I seem to recall Nigel Ayres having described the recording process as akin to channelling.

Anyway, that's what you get here, or some of that because it's surprising how much actual variety is to be found amongst this hour or so of distortion and noise. Even the once ubiquitous tapes of speech which appeared on everything to the west of Pierre Schaeffer for most of that particular year hardly make an appearance. Nocturnal Emissions tended to avoid repeating themselves, and unwittingly broke quite a lot of newish electronic ground in their flailing about in search of the perfect noise. Whilst arguably industrial musicians of a certain vintage claiming to have originated everything from acid house to German death reggae have become legion in recent years, and whilst I can't really see Marshall Jefferson sat thoughtfully nodding his head and taking notes as he spins Tissue of Lies, it has to be said that the Nocturnal Emissions back catalogue does seem to have foreshadowed a hell of a lot in a general sense, even without considering the proto-house of Viral Shedding. Some of Duty Experiment sounds almost like dubstep or grime in places, and regardless of whether or not this just emerges through natural pattern recognition, the proof of this particular pudding at least leaves a better tastes than whatever Porridge has decided to take credit for this week. One day the greatness of Nocturnal Emissions will be acknowledged, and this is as good a place to start as any.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Godflesh - Streetcleaner (1989)

Funny how certain things send you straight off in search of a particular bit of music. This one came back to me through the reproduction of a Daily Mail cartoon likening Muslim refugees to a plague of rats infesting host countries, just as Nazi cartoonists once made the same analogy with Jews; and the first track here is Like Rats which, aside from the parallel title, pretty much summarises the shittiness of a world run almost exclusively for the benefit of horrible Daily Mail reading cunts.

I was introduced to Godflesh with Us & Them, but for some reason have only recently begun to venture further into their back catalogue. I'm not sure why being as I love the shit out of Us & Them; although with hindsight, it's weird to consider that it's almost their album of uptempo pop songs, at least compared to this beast.

Actually, I suppose I was introduced to Godflesh - or at least to Justin Broadrick - much earlier when he recorded tapes of electronic noise as Final, and a few of his tracks appeared on the same noisy cassette compilations as some of my own stuff. I don't recall much about the music, beyond that one track was called Belief, but the fact that I remember it at all suggests it had something going for it. Also, the transition from power electronics to this sort of noise metal makes a lot of sense, and whilst Godflesh weren't the only band to go down that particular road, they remain the most listenable of their kind for my money - possibly excepting Ramleh who were kind of going for a different thing anyway.

Where Us & Them seems to share some kinship with Killing Joke or even Joy Division, Streetcleaner is a different, more primal monster. This one isn't so much songs as power electronics with riffs and a drum machine. Ordinarily, much as I love Brer Drum Machine, I'd raise an eyebrow at his use under circumstances where an actual drummer would have sounded so much better - like on Big Black's otherwise astonishing Atomiser, for one example. Streetcleaner initially sounds like it could do with a human bashing the skins, not least because the drum machine here is clearly programmed to have more or less the same effect as John Bonham, but after a few listens the reasoning for the choice becomes clear. There's something about the impersonal quality of a drum machine and the very fact of it being a machine which works so well. Music reviews employing the term jackhammer in reference to rhythm seem a bit of a cliché, but this one really does sound like that. It rocks like fuck whilst nevertheless resembling some inhuman mechanical process occurring inside the meat factory, the sort of thing with a start button and that big red plastic mushroom you bash to shut the whole system down when some poor fucker falls in and loses his legs. Add to this massive riffs delivered like concrete blocks onto a loading bay from the back of a truck, over and over and over, and every single one of them landing on your fucking foot.

It's huge and brutal, possibly an heir to the Swans, except Cop seems surprisingly subtle by comparison despite equivalent soul-crushing weight. Extremity has become a bit of a minefield in musical terms as of at least the last decade, mainly thanks to too many industrial types coming to resemble the enemy in their relentless invocation of the violence of civilisation. In fact I'm surprised there hasn't yet been a pro-UKIP power electronics act coming through, but give it time. Godflesh at least seem to have remained true to the spirit of dissent informing earlier generations of noisy buggers, the Grey Wolves for example - whom I mention partially because they're about as dark as it gets and I know they're good lads, and also because I know one of them occasionally reads this stuff, and because for the sake of argument I suppose Godflesh are the Grey Wolves with tunes, just about, at least in terms of what they do to your ears, brain, and arse.

It's hardly pretty, but then neither is the world which has inspired this particular hour long howl of rage, and sometimes it helps to be reminded of the fact with no punches pulled.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Lady Gaga - Artpop (2013)

So far as I've been concerned up until very recently, Lady Gaga was just wossername who brought us Poker Face, a song comprised entirely of choruses which sounded like it had been recorded on an expensive phone. It came on the radio at work to bring pleasure only in the knowledge that we at least weren't tuned to the station which played Chelsea Dagger by the fucking Fratellis every seven bleeding minutes. More recently I joined one of those facebook groups you hear about, specifically one in which members post a piccy of the cover of whatever they're listening to at the time, then we all say how we like it too, or we think it's shite, or how our next door neighbour once bummed the drummer or whatever. It's fun, but not without its annoyances, one of which is provided by the doubtless absolutely lovely and well intentioned guy who posts a picture of whatever he's listening to embellished with photocopied paper dollies of famous pop stars stood around the record cover along with a tattyfilarious script of their conversation.

ELVIS PRESLEY: Hey guys, I see Dave's checking out the first Doobie Brothers album.
BARBARA STREISAND: That's a pretty ropey looking copy.
BRITNEY SPEARS: Yeah, I hope he didn't pay too much for it.
ELVIS PRESLEY: Well, the Clash told me it was something he found in his dad's loft, so I guess he didn't pay anything.
BRITNEY SPEARS: Is that right?
THE CLASH: Don't ask us. We were still in the pub.
JOHNNY CASH: I think you mean me. People are always getting us confused.

No. I don't know why either, but to get to the point, our man recently posted a photograph of this Lady Gaga album as subject of imaginary debate amongst cut-out pictures of top poppers. Fuck's sake, I muttered darkly to myself, even more disgusted than usual; and then went off for a listen to some of the album on YouTube just to confirm that it was as shit as I thought it would be. Somehow it wasn't, at least it didn't sound that way on that particular morning, and so I wondered if I perhaps had Lady Gaga all wrong. After all, of the musical artists I rate most highly, my initial impression of almost every last one has usually been what the fuck is this shit?

Weirdly, whatever that not actually terrible track may have been, it sounds completely different on the actual disc, and completely different to the point that I'm not even sure which one it was. More annoyingly, Artpop is Madonna for people who post videos of themselves talking about their top five favourite Manga characters on YouTube and is about as good as I had a feeling it would be, at least in so much as it probably sounds amazing if you're under thirty and fucking stupid...

Nope. Not apologising for that one, and I don't care if I've just turned into my dad frowning at the Sex Pistols - young people are shit. Theoretically they can't all be shit, but I don't seem to have encountered too many exceptions to the rule: useless fuckers forever fiddling with their phones and texting about how all music is pointless now, not like the good old classic rock days of Oasis and Muse, or Andrew Lloyd Webber and Elton John, and old people are always going on about books but you can't learn nuffink from books because that ain't life and there's nuffink wrong with games because some of them have got really good stories now blah blah fucking blah - fuck you, kids. All of you. Develop some fucking discretion.

Sadly, Artpop is post-music, just the sonic extension of a larger, more substantial memeplex incorporating visuals, ringtones, sneakers, YouTube, and marketing strategy. It means well and it tries hard to deliver an authentic experience, but even with the best intention, it remains a McDonald's Fruit Bag™ at heart. I'm trying to pinpoint just what it is that fails to work, that lets the side down, but there's so much going on, and so much which sounds like it should work without actually succeeding that it's hard to identify any one specific turd in the musical swimming pool. Of course, being post-music, it all sounds like it was recorded on a phone, full of flourishes which never could have arisen prior to our developing the ability to move waveforms around on a screen. I'm a huge fan of weirdy electronic techno, and yet what happens here all feels too smooth and easily achieved, and it might almost resemble the Severed Heads -  ordinarily a recommendation - but for the problem that musically it only really does one thing, and it does it over and over. Everything sounds like a crescendo, like a musical analogy of the worst of modern cinema - the tender interlude from The Fast and the Furious again and again and again, all soft focus and a single tear forming in the corner of an unnaturally enlarged cinematic eye whilst five orchestras shit themselves in unison just in case that blind guy living on Pluto missed the point of it being an emotional moment.

I could live with this if Artpop had some dimension other than the celebration of its own artificiality, its own failure to resemble anything occurring in nature, but the rest of the sentence, had I bothered to spell it out, probably depends on how much you care about Andy Warhol, which personally I never did. The sexuality is up front and lurid, better done than the perpetually gurning Miley Cyrus forever holding her flaps apart and inviting you to take a lick, but still ultimately as clinical and calculating as any vagina airbrushed and clean shaven in the name of selling beer, guns, or cigarettes. I quite like sexy music, but properly sexy music rarely spells it out, and Gaga doesn't have the voice to pull it off, in either sense of the expression. She's decent, but then doubtless so are many other X-Factor contestants, and she only seems to do two things, either gushing operatically over musical crescendos or that wearyingly stern now I'm going to shove this up your arse, you naughty boy voice; excepting some bluesy effort towards the end of the disc to which she just isn't well suited. For fuck's sake woman, put some clothes on. We've seen enough.

Artpop is an advert for car insurance, a soundtrack for people who think that the fashion industry is important, techno which misses the great innovation of techno having been its rejection of personality. Artpop probably isn't quite so terrible as I've made it sound, but for something which tries so hard, it's surprising how little it really does.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Lene Lovich - Stateless (1978)

I bought Flex when it came out, and it probably numbered somewhere amongst the first ten or possibly twenty albums I owned; and then it went soon after during one of my own very few nights of the long playing knives, either for failing to be sufficiently punky or not featuring enough synthesisers, or some other ludicrous reason which could only ever make sense to a sixteen-year old. I bought it again more recently, and mainly prompted by my having stumbled across a somewhat knackered copy of Stateless in a junk shop, a purchase in turn inspired by the realisation that Lucky Number is a fucking cracker of a song whichever way you look at it.

More recently in some neglected corner of the internet I described Lene Lovich as Devo with tits, immediately invoking the ire of someone failing to recognise this for the compliment it was intended to be; although on close inspection it's true that Devo with tits probably doesn't really cover it. Stateless has some of that same mutant angularity which characterised Devo at the time, filtered through a cabaret sensibility, the melodrama of yer Brechts and yer Weills and those guys - gothy jazz rather than retrofuturism. Listening to this for the first time with all of those years having stacked up since its release, it sounds briefly like the epitomy of new wave - skinny ties, tight dry production, and what's obviously a sound honed by a full band during a succession of live dates - but it turns weird pretty quickly, rising above whatever expectations one might have of something released on Stiff in 1978. It's probably something to do with the four note choral tourettes of the bridge of Lucky Number. It still sounds weird and upsetting even now. Most of the tracks on this record do the same thing to greater or lesser degrees, freaking you out a bit before proving relatively friendly. You'd happily let Mrs. Lovich have a cup of sugar, but there's no way she's coming in for a cup of neighbourly tea because there's just no telling what would happen - I mean she seems pleasant enough, but no-one knows where the fuck she came from, and then you have those twenty foot pigtails...

Yet Stateless nevertheless does what it does without any obviously scary faces pulled, and we even get I Think We're Alone Now before Tiffany got hold of it. Perhaps oddly, in terms of instrumentation and general mood, I can imagine Bowie singing on this, and had he done so it would have been remembered as a classic of such stature as to necessitate punching those who disagree in the face; but it really wouldn't have been as good, and so it's ended up as one of those albums known mainly to people who know the album, and that's apparently the story in full.