Thursday, 31 March 2016

Human Trapped Rhythms - Drowning and Falling in You (1985)

Every couple of years someone on the internet posts a picture of the cover of this record and composes a paragraph of text amounting to a shrug in the hope of preventing its seemingly inevitable backwards slide across the obscurity event horizon; and now it's my turn to do the honours. The last time I saw Drowning and Falling in You mentioned on a blog was some American bloke who used the term industrial in every other sentence whilst suggesting it all sounded a bit pretentious. Listening to this again, whilst I can see that Peter Elliott may have failed to produce an enchanting populist Cockney knees-up beloved of young and old alike, if you're going to call it pretentious then you might as well just call everything which isn't actually Chas & Dave pretentious on the grounds that it thinks it's too good to be Chas & Dave.

Peter Elliott is the name of the individual behind this record. I used to swap tapes with him back in the day, before everything went bad and was pronounced industrial by complete fucking cocks who weren't actually there - back when it was just people with tape recorders trying to make something which sounded interesting. Human Trapped Rhythms was a name that apparently emerged from a game of exquisite corpse which Mr. Elliott considered fitting for the music he'd been working on, as indeed it is. He produced a tape called And to Z in 1984 which ended up on the Grey Wolves' label - which I must still have somewhere - and then came this vinyl album, and so far as I'm aware no-one seems to have heard of him since.

Drowning and Falling in You is quite an oddity, and possibly one of the most minimal records I own. Whilst all of our contemporaries were struggling to multitrack twenty different weird noises onto the cassette deck of a crappy music centre without it sounding a complete mess, Elliott had apparently forked out for expensive studio time so as to record himself holding down a single key of a pipe organ for a couple of minutes in the highest possible quality. Well, it's not all the single key of a pipe organ held down for a couple of minutes, although it feels like it is, or at least it feels like 75% of what you hear on this record is empty space. There are occasional voices, even some singing, disparate sounds added for the sake of atmosphere, and you could probably move in an approximately rhythmic fashion to The Message if you really felt the need, but mostly this is about mood rather than music in the conventional sense. The sheer minimalism of muted tones rumbling away with a touch of reverb forces the ear to pay attention, to really appreciate the simplicity of the design, I suppose; and to wax pretentiously, the effect reminds me of certain Rothko paintings - there's a whole lot of pain going on in there, but you can't quite see it clearly, and so you can't quite be sure.

Sorry if I've alienated any Ministry fans.

Most powerful is possibly the title track comprising just female voice and canned laughter, which makes for a really unsettling combination given the absence of humorous context. No Words is also wonderful. In fact, most of it is, but it's also quite odd, which is probably why Human Trapped Rhythms have all but vanished from collective memory. Had Peter Elliott reached a more supportive audience, say whichever section of the Cornelius Cardew barmy army managed to avoid turning into Citizen Smith back in 1974, we might still be hearing about this one just as we still seem to be hearing one fuck of a lot about the similarly Mancunian Muslimgauze; but sadly I guess it was just me, those howlin' Grey Wolves, and maybe a few others. Oh well.

See you in another couple of years.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Matt Johnson - Burning Blue Soul (1981)

Chris Morris having just been vanned to the fens by a crime git.

I initially regarded The The as a sort of baby Cabaret Voltaire in the same way that Yello were proposed to be baby Residents by the Ralph Records publicity dynamo. I based this assumption on the nameless track they contributed to the Some Bizzare Album back when The The were they rather than just Matt Johnson plus some pals. When Soul Mining came out they - for the sake of argument rather than he because it reads better - seemed more like they were going for the perfect pop-soul championship, a title which I suppose eventually went to ABC if anyone. Of course, there was also Burning Blue Soul, an album which I recently noticed I'd never actually got around to hearing or buying.

For the sake of argument Burning Blue Soul was, I suppose, the first The The album, and certainly it's unmistakably the work of the same guy. That said, I'm surprised at how close I came with my baby Cabaret Voltaire comparison. This incarnation of The The was arguably more traditionally musical than Cabaret Voltaire ever were, tracks being laced with harmonious vocals and vaguely bluesy guitar licks; and for all the Sheffield lads' greatness, no-one ever sat you down with a Martini whilst approaching the record player with a copy of Mix-Up promising man, wait 'til you here the chops on these cats - there's some really outtasite playing on this baby, lemme tell ya.

Anyway, here we find that characteristic Matt Johnson songcraft somehow blending seamlessly with howling walls of sound, treated vocals and hybridised tribal rhythms of a kind that wouldn't have sounded entirely out of place on Red Mecca. It's produced by a couple of Wire bods and you can sort of tell in the glacial edge it seems to share with maybe Chairs Missing. It's perhaps not so satisfying as Soul Mining or Dusk, but then I've only just bought the thing and his albums tend to grow and blossom the more you listen to them, at least in my experience. It's nice to know that something which came out thirty-five years ago can nevertheless turn out to be as full of surprises as it most likely would have been had I bought it at the time; and Lordy - what I'd give to hear The Pornography of Despair given that it was probably not unlike this one.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

The Buggles - The Age of Plastic (1980)

The concept of presents on Valentine's Day is new to me, so I'm not entirely sure who fills the Santa role for this occasion - possibly Barbara Cartland or someone of that kind. Anyway, whoever landed the job, it seems she'd overheard some conversation I'd had during the previous week and had accordingly deposited a copy of the first Buggles album inside my traditional Valentine's Day underpants when the day came.

The conversation began with the revelation of Video Killed the Radio Star having also been a hit over here in Americaland, which surprised me for some reason. Wringing what little memory of 1980 I still have at my disposal for what few drips are to be had, I vaguely recall looking at The Age of Plastic in the local record shop - almost certainly WHSmiths - and wondering what it would be like to own the album. The problem was that my pocket money was a limited resource and I already had a massive internalised list of albums I really, really needed by the Stranglers, David Bowie and others; and then Graham told me that Devo had done a second one; and by the time I could afford to risk copping this thing, the moment had gone.

The Buggles - named as some sort of pun on Beatles - were Trevor Horn of the lavish production and terrible red spectacles, and his mate Geoff, both of whom ended up in Yes. I remember thinking it seemed an odd move, but having listened to this album and realised it actually really doesn't have much in common with the Angelic Upstarts after all, it makes sense. Horn, who is probably more or less single-handedly responsible for most of the eighties, was quite clearly always a bit proggy, and it shows here once you listen past the squeaky clean surfaces and efforts to distil the essence of bubblegum.

Culturally speaking The Age of Plastic sounds very much like the final flourish of belief in a future as something different to the present, the last Gernsback-inspired rock opera about jet packs, food pills and the monorail. Of course there are dystopian details for the sake of texture, not least the heart police putting you under cardiac arrest - whatever the fuck that is - but the presence of grit is mainly just an excuse for Trev to sing about shiny serving clones and metal friends. We're a long way from Gary Numan being bummed by a machine in the park, figuratively speaking.

Older, or at least more obsessive, boys and girls may recall Horn and Downes having a less famous writing partner called Bruce Woolley. He co-wrote Video Killed the Radio Star and Clean Clean, and recorded versions of both for English Garden, the debut album by his own band, the Camera Club. English Garden is a rockier affair than The Age of Plastic and frankly a much better record, perhaps sounding more akin to Sparks than the generically skinny-tied new wave effort suggested by the cover; and it's a shame Woolley didn't have a bit more involvement in this one, although it might have changed the entire course of the eighties and denied Duran Duran a few of their fifteen minute extended b-sides. Maybe that wouldn't have been a huge loss.

I suppose the Buggles were a victim of Trevor Horn's success in so much as more or less everything we recall of the eighties with either a sneer or at best an indulgent frown - orchestral stabs, pasteurised funky bass, shiny jackets and obvious sampling, it all started here, more or less, smuggled in under what may as well be Andrew Lloyd Webber trying to make a musical out of an A.E. van Vogt novel. I'm not saying that's a bad thing so much as that listeners may have to attune their ears to the sound before full appreciation is possible. It's cheese, but not necessarily bad cheese, even given the Alan Partridge-esque presence of Island - a reggae instrumental - as a bonus track on the compact disc, and it being impossible to hear Kid Dynamo without getting a mental image of Noel Fielding pulling surprised futuristic faces.

I'm not sure it was worth the thirty-five year wait, but I've heard worse; so thanks, Barbara, I guess.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Go-Kart Mozart - Instant Wig Wam And Igloo Mixture (1999)

You know how you have first flushes of love tunes, those songs you will forever associate with a certain time when you began seeing a certain person, or possibly even having it off with them? If not, just bear with me. I kicked off with U2's Pride (in the Name of Love) which happened to occupy the pop parade just as I became involved with my first ever girlfriend. My second vaguely proper relationship arrived nearly a decade later and was scored to American Rock by Denim, which is possibly a bit of an odd choice, but is at least indicative of just how much I loved Denim at the time.

Naturally I had high expectations of Lawrence's next thing, and yet I've never quite got to grips with Go-Kart Mozart. I know it's supposed to be a sort of no frills Fine Fare yellow label version of Denim or something, and therefore has a bit of a pound shop stench as an inherent part of its musical genome, perhaps even as its mission statement; and having wasted at least twenty years of my life recording tinny novelty songs on crap equipment, Instant Wig Wam And Igloo Mixture should be a shoe-in for me.

I like the theory behind it, although the term theory suggests deliberation when it's probably mostly just gut instinct. Go-Kart Mozart is the Island of Misfit Toys of rock, the true face of our history. Stewart Maconie and other Spangle-gobbling revivalists have fooled us into accepting a version of our childhood in which Ziggy Stardust often read the six o'clock news, Faust were on Blue Peter every day, and On the Buses was funny.

I recently spent nearly a year writing a novel set in 1975, and part of my research constituted a month by month account of major news items, what was on the telly and what we were listening to. It was weird and slightly depressing, because whilst it's fun to remember the cool stuff, by sheer numbers it was mostly Barry Blue, Mike Batt, Jimmy Savile, and Kenny on Top of the Pops all in their matching jumpers with K on the front; and Go-Kart Mozart is assembled from this material, all the crap which we've written out of history, the details which will never, ever be remembered as cool, the stuff which just wasn't funny or charming enough for any of those I Heart the 70s shows. Musically this is the sort of gear which even fucking Stereolab wouldn't touch with yours, mate.

Accordingly, for all the dinky Bontempi tunes, Instant Wig Wam And Igloo Mixture feels oddly like one of those power electronics albums which pulls no punches in its mission to drive you to take the record from the turntable and fling it out of the window in disgust. It feels peculiarly extreme, particularly Drinkin' Um Bongo which combines African bloodbaths with cartoon juice box nostalgia to genuinely unsettling effect. It inhabits a world in which homosexuality is limp of wrist and will probably tell you to shut that door, and it writes an opera around Birmingham's Bull Ring shopping centre without so much as a smirk. It would make more sense if it was all done for chuckles, but it feels weirdly in earnest, which is itself funny, I suppose. I might like it more had it been recorded as a Denim album, although I suspect that may be missing the point, whatever it was.

Forget all those post-industrial types churning out album after album of self-conscious Dadaism, this is one of the weirdest things I've ever heard, and I still can't tell if I even like it or not.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Smell & Quim - Your Enemy's Balls (1994)

My friend Andy described Smell & Quim as the industrial Chas & Dave. I very much like the idea of Smell & Quim as the industrial Chas & Dave but I suspect Andy was confusing thematic tangents with the presence of an ampersand in the name of the band. We've all done it.

Maybe they're more like Second Annual Report dubbed onto VHS footage of the Kenny Everett Video Show; or maybe I'm just wasting everyone's time with such comparisons.

For the sake of argument let's agree that Smell & Quim were what happened when power electronics developed a long overdue sense of humour, given that The English Method predated William Bennett's transformation into a sort of sadist Bruce Forsyth by two years; or at least let's agree that I've just written that. Ignoring the notion that there was ever anything genuinely tittersome about Porridge wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a picture of Charles Manson's todger - the joke being that no-one knows it's Charles Manson's todger tee hee playful yet subversive blah blah blah  - I suppose it was inevitable given the inherent absurdity of a man stomping around a stage screaming about how he's going to do you up the wrong 'un.

The thing is that with a lot of these noisy types, especially those from the pornier end of the spectrum, whilst grimacing like you actually mean it may well render the work all the more terrifying, it all begins to look a bit art gallery after a while, particularly since the mainstream Turner Prize winning art world went all Moors murderers and elephant poo. With this in mind, Smell & Quim came across as altogether more visceral when I first heard them and was still in the throes of my initial what the fuck? reaction - a thoroughly disgusting journey into the actual tastes and smells, the cheesy and the yeasty of their routinely appalling subject matter in contrast to the sanitised airbrushed pubes of their contemporaries; and never mind all this posing around as some faceless authoritarian organisation with a scary name, Smell & Quim always knew they were a pop band. They even dressed as Elvis a couple of times. That's ennatainment!

I always thought Your Enemy's Balls was supposed to be some kind of greatest hits given that the excellent Bukowski-sampling Shaft of a Goad / Lurve was on The English Method, but I could be wrong. In any case, it's a thoroughly convincing place to start with this lot, should you feel so inclined and seeing as they're still cheap over on Discogs; and Turned Over to Sod in particular demonstrates why they are the one noise band you simply must have in your collection, as Tony Blackburn might put it - twenty-two minutes of looped noise with the horrifying vocal performed by a speak and spell machine. You may well think what the hell is this shit?, but the effect is peculiar once it draws to an end, as though you're left beached on a slightly different and certainly weirder universe than when you first hit play. So even if you really must regard Smell & Quim as a comedy turn - the sort of thing which makes the Residents sound like a lounge act covering the Steve Miller Band - there is nevertheless a solemn and unsettling power to what they do; and in terms of what you get for your noise dollar, they really do make most of the competition sound like po-faced wankers. Your Enemy's Balls also includes a track called Incontinence Pants Are Go, if that helps.