Thursday, 28 April 2016

Happy Mondays - Pills 'n' Thrills and Bellyaches (1990)

Sarah and I were walking along a road somewhere in Manchester on the way to some pub or other. Sarah had been my first girlfriend some ten or fifteen years earlier. It hadn't lasted long, but at least it had ended sort of amicably, and now the only thing which remained puzzling is how she had picked up such a thick Manchester accent in the time since. It sounded affected to my ears, but then it had been a while since we spoke to each other. Crossing to take some side street, we encountered a young man with a slightly vacant expression.

'A'right, our Liam,' said Sarah, and I'm going to assume his name was Liam, because it was something like that.

'A'right, Sarah,' he said, and the words slipped from his mouth as though deposited, sluggish and unengaged. His accent was almost impenetrable to my ears, and it sounded like he had a good pint of snot up there somewhere. 'I just been mugged.'


'I just been mugged, like.'

'What happened?'

He explained how some person had approached him with a knife and asked for his wallet. He'd given the person his wallet, and now here we were.

'Are you okay?'

'Yeah. Bit pissed off, like.' He shrugged.

He'd been mugged at knife point and was describing the encounter like it had been some stranger cadging cigarettes. Are you even fucking alive in there? I wanted to ask but didn't, instead making noises like I understood because it's happened to all of us. Were this London, I thought to myself, someone would have had their legs broken by this point.

The encounter seemed to epitomise some kind of Mancunian experience, one I've never understood and would never want to understand - a dopey quality which cannot logically apply to every single person living in that city, but which I tend to notice because it irritates the living shit out of me. Possibly it's the drug thing. I've never understood how mere love of ganja so often equates to character for certain people, or how some can spend an entire fucking day just lighting one up, over and over. I've always found drug people a massive bore, or specifically I've found their drug talk a massive bore because it mostly seems to entail sitting around reminiscing over previous occasions of weed inhalation expressed as statements of the fucking obvious, and how side-splitting it was when we put some blims in that ham sandwich and then the dog ate it blah blah blah...

It was a while before I actually heard their music, but prior to that point Happy Mondays seemed like a band assembled specifically for the purpose of getting on my tits - an indeterminate quota of generic scallies stood around staring into fucking space with their mouths open, one of them possibly shoving a magic marker up his hooter and proclaiming himself mad for it every once in a while; and the whole bleeding world seemed to love them.

A friend from school - one of those who says hey, we really must keep in touch every single time you speak to him, with intervals never shorter than a year apart - seemingly phoned me up to go on about the Happy Mondays. 'New Musical Express is an anagram of Manchester Evening Post,' he quipped with the cadence of this being a joke he'd taken pleasure in cracking on a daily basis. Unfortunately it was lost on me as I didn't read the music papers at the time and had no idea what he was talking about. Then there was the fucking awful upper class Bohemian girl at some shitty party, trying hard to cop off with my friend Alan whilst clearly resenting my lemonesque presence, her every other sentence a weirdly lascivious reference to Shaun Ryder, with a little smile because we all know what he's like!

Yeah - that guy! What a rogue, and just everyone's talking about him! What a rogue he is stood there scratching his arse in his trackie bottoms and dealing crack or cake or mong or whatever it is that constitutes his muse, this week. He's just so real, you know?

So, to finally get to the point of all this bollocks, even without mentioning that there's always been a dance element to our music, man, the Mondays - as those self-consciously in the know referred to them - may as well have been put together by my worst enemy in an effort to induce me to a coronary by way of some sort of loathing overload. This in itself seemed to render them perversely fascinating to my point of view, and it was a major surprise when I heard Wrote For Luck and realised that I liked it. I later found out that what I actually liked was a radically different remix of the song by the plinky-plonky bloke out of Depeche Mode, but it provided an in-road; then Step On actually sounded all right, so good in fact that I didn't mind all the monkeys jumping around on the climbing frame in the background. Next thing I knew I was in WHSmiths in Lewisham buying this album because why the fuck not?

Do one thing every day that scares you, said Eleanor Roosevelt, although she probably didn't have a Happy Mondays record in mind.

I still don't buy that they were ever so revolutionary as was claimed, and as is still claimed in certain circles. For starters, dance music already existed back at the beginning of the nineties and had been doing just fine without the help of turdy guitar bands beloved of the NME, and secondly, Happy Mondays were pretty much a karaoke version of Can in so much as that their entire back catalogue bears a striking resemblance to Can's somewhat familiarly titled Hallelujah. That said, I've never really warmed to Can, which I suppose makes it all the more puzzling that Pills 'n' Thrills and Bellyaches should sound so good to me.

In addition to the Can thing, Happy Mondays also seemed to be the heavier, sweatier end of seventies disco filtered through some vaguely post-punk sensibility or at least with that same spikey edge - PIL's Metal Box drinking something with a pineapple floating in it whilst drunkenly staggering towards a series of Motown or Stax covers. Of course, Manchester had something of a tradition of funky behaviour, mostly white blokes in vests frowning and playing the bongos with excerpts from Battleship Potemkin projected onto the backdrop. Happy Mondays might have been an outgrowth of that, except they mixed up the formula, keeping a tight underpinning as contrast with much looser embellishments and the fairly strong suggestion that at least half of the people on stage were almost certainly off their tits; and I suppose you could say they had the common touch in that they seemed accessible to their audience both as people and in terms of subject, just like someone you probably knew at work - obviously full of shit but not necessarily a bad person; and because of this, no matter how far they may sink into the realms of substances you snort up your nose with a rolled up copy of Readers' Wives, there's a joyous, uplifting quality to the Happy Mondays - something of such generous spirit that you don't mind the smell.

I am aware of my own tendency to sneer and how it informs at least the first two thirds of this review; but it should probably be remembered here that I'm expressing an opinion, and not one with which I necessarily expect the reader to agree. Weirdly, I suppose this is what I take from the disparity between my initial reaction to Happy Mondays and how much I ended up playing this album. Sometimes it's refreshing to know you were wrong, or even that your being right about something doesn't matter because it should always be possible to find something good in an unexpected place.

Oasis were fucking shite though.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Death In June - Nada! (1985)

There has been, over the years, a seemingly infinite tide of complete bollocks written about this bunch, so a few more paragraphs probably won't make a whole lot of difference. Even in taking the disparaging view towards which I am driven, there will inevitably be some reverse-McCarthyite on a witch-hunt protesting that the voices raised in condemnation are not quite loud enough and Herman Goering once used the phrase not quite loud enough in a letter written to his mam, therefore aha! To such persons I say screw you too, and congratulations on turning into a model of the inflexible ultrapolarity to which you claim to be opposed.

Anyway, I used to go nuts for Death In June back in the nineties, back before it all went bad, or was at last exposed as having been somewhat minging all along depending on which version you prefer; and it wasn't even like I had to rush out and buy everything I could get my mitts on because I was at the time in a band using the same distribution company as were Death In June. The company was World Serpent and their office was just around the corner from where I lived in Lewisham and I was prone to sporadic bouts of hanging around and blagging freebies simply because I could. I still have about thirteen or fourteen Death In June albums in my collection - depending on what you define as an album - and I think I paid for maybe two of them; although it could be argued that being pals with World Serpent's David Gibson was itself a form of payment, and a much harsher form than any more conventional numismatic equivalent.

Then, around the time of Take Care and Control, the release of which segued directly into Death In June parting company with World Serpent, the word seemed to get around that Douglas P's continuing exploration of controversial ideas and images might derive from political views of slightly more astringent composition than a simple dislike of reggae. The embarrassing thing about this was of course that it had been staring us in the face all along in so much as that it was specifically because Death In June were so fucking scary that we'd been drawn to them in the first place. I know a number of people who've since got rid of their Death In June records; and I can understand why because, if for no other reason, the possibility that those responsible might genuinely believe the wrong side won the second world war feels like a betrayal given how hard we all worked to sustain the benefit of the doubt for so long; and it makes us look like idiots.

I, on the other hand, still have these things in my possession. I don't listen to them because it was a long time ago and I've moved on, but I once played the shit out of Nada! and others, and it can be difficult to completely let go when you loved something that much; plus they still sound decent - or at least artistically interesting - regardless of what retarded motives may have informed their recording, which can't really be said of Skrewdriver.

So let's take a look at this thing, and if possible without getting hysterical or denouncing anyone as a Nazi just because we have a picture of them smiling whilst eating a frankfurter.

Death In June, if we assume for the sake of argument that Nada! is just a record, expand on the sort of faux classicism which Joy Division first introduced to the hit parade, which was itself probably somewhere between a slightly pretentious poetic tendency and a desire to put some distance between itself and its belching punk rock roots. Much popular music at the arse end of the twentieth century has been about pissing somebody off for chuckles, usually parents who don't understand, but also those of our peers who don't seem quite sufficiently elevated, obscure, cool, poetic, back-combed or whatever and might be better served staying at home with their ghastly working class Showaddywaddy albums, or whatever else it was that Morrissey didn't like that week. In terms of the vague genre which has been posthumously and somewhat ludicrously dubbed industrial music, the pissing someone off for chuckles often amounts to cheap liberal baiting because what could be funnier than sticking your tongue out at your biggest fans, at those who would defend your dubiously rendered outsider art with the most passion, those bleating sheep-like losers! Exploring controversial ideas and imagery is of course always a chortlesome means of alienating those thou wouldst deem to be but twats and serfs, which isn't to say that Porridge's interest in Charles Manson wasn't absolutely sincere; but sincere or not, the subtext always came across as here's a horrible thing and there's a possibility that I might actually approve of what it says or does, and I'm amused that this upsets you. It's the same as that not-particularly-fateful school dinner of my distant youth during which my friend Paul pointed to the tiny brown husk of a watercress seed in my salad and told me, 'those things are poisonous,' before adding with glee 'my family eat them!'

As four million heavy metal bands are my witness, this is not a new idea, it being in the tradition of all those album covers with Old English lettering and a leering Satan looking at women's tits. The difference is that whilst leering Satan looking at women's tits patently belongs to some kind of showbiz tradition and is therefore inherently theatrical, supposedly industrial equivalents employ poetic faux classicism so as to pull a serious face thereby presenting the suggestion that they might actually mean it - hence all those groups pretending to be dubious organisations rather than merely noisy rock bands. Death In June are Adolf Hitler looking at women's tits, and the art is in the ambiguity: maybe they're for real, or as it is written within the run-out spiral of this very album, we aim to please with constant unease.

The above two paragraphs account in part for why I had Death In June records in my collection in the first place, but probably shouldn't be regarded as the whole story.

Nada! works as an album because it retains a sort of dark beauty which bypasses whatever intellectual argument you might set against it. It hints at dramatic and horrifying acts or emotions - death, pain, betrayal, and all those other po-faced martial clichés - in a pseudo-mystical language invoking mournful looking statues and other reet classy stuff, all a long way away from the great belching leviathan of rock and roll. Nada! does it's job very well, or did it's job very well at the time by sounding like nothing else of its day - kettle drums, acoustic guitar, trumpet, golden voices and pulsing electronics; and it did it's job very well, contrasting all the skulls and daggers and ambiguous threats with an audio palette which sounds like it wants to be a Titian landscape when it grows up, yet without actually saying anything.

Blood flows...

Fields of Rape...

She said destroy in black New York...

...what the fuck? Black New York? You mean like the black neighbourhoods? Did he really say that?

Où est Klaus barbie...

Il est dans le coeur noir...

Claudette va à l'école tous les jours...

I suppose you might say the problem with Death In June - or at least one significant problem - can be reduced to whether they mean it, maaaan, but have been playing the get out of the art gallery free card all this time so as to prevent horrible working class Showaddywaddy fans calling them names and saying that they smell and that they're a bit like Hitler; or whether the ambiguity really is the whole point, and it's just art - and art and politics don't mix as one former massive knob put it, presumably because he was playing drums for Death In June at the time. Unfortunately, if ambiguity is the whole point and allusions to the Third Reich are all just one big convoluted metaphor for feeling a bit glum, then as art it's too repetitive and clumsy to have been informed by the sort of intellectual classicism to which it purportedly aspires, not least because even after all this time Death In June still don't seem to have actually said anything you wouldn't find on any other tenth rate goth album, not even by accident; and in case anyone was wondering, I've picked on Nada! because it still sounds like an actual record. More recent efforts would have constituted shooting a fish in a barrel - The Rule of Thirds from 2008 for example just seems to be strum whine moan strum strum angels and stuff strum Martin Boorman was nice to his goldfish blah blah blah... It sounds like he's making it up as he goes along, just more generic neofolk product by which to pay off a substantial tab at Millets. Those camouflage underpants ain't cheap.

Yet whilst Death In June don't appear to have actually said anything, Douglas P himself certainly has, and it's all over the internet and isn't difficult to find. Mostly it seems to be nebulous crap along the lines of how the European gene pool has seen better days - stuff at roughly the intellectual level of someone you knew from school who turns up on facebook after twenty years, working for an insurance company and who thinks that UKIP are only stating what many people feel they aren't allowed to say due to political correctness. In fact, Douglas P's infrequent almost but not quite political observations seem to present an intriguing third possibility that he hasn't really thought about it all that much because the fucker simply isn't that bright, and the fact of his having got away with singing veiled tributes to Adolf Hitler all these years has really been sheer dumb luck - not so much a Nazi as just something of a berk.

So in conclusion, I don't know whether he is or he isn't, and I'm not sure how much I genuinely care. On the other hand, my bottom line is that when fans turn up to your gigs wearing full SS uniform to appreciatively sieg heil your songs, and this doesn't inspire you to take a long, hard look at just where you've gone wrong, then you're a fucking twat regardless; which I'd say applies just as well when you see no ideological problem in sharing a stage with acts who openly endorse racist or otherwise extreme right-wing ideals. Whether it's art, or you like to keep an open-mind, or you're thinking outside the box, or you're simply exploring controversial ideas and imagery, you're still a fucking twat.

The bottom line to this bottom line is that it won't necessarily stop me listening to your records, any more than I'll ever stop listening to and enjoying MC Ren urging us all to buy guns and take out as many white people as we can before the cops arrive - which is different for too many reasons to go into here - but it may somewhat change my regard of you as an individual with a presumed ability to think in a straight line without either falling over or shitting yourself. So feel free to continue to listen to and enjoy Death In June, but please don't pretend it does anything deeper than what little it has the courage to admit on the tin. Sometimes if it quacks like a duck and it walks like a duck and it looks like a duck, then maybe it's a fucking duck. It might simply be pretending to be a duck for reasons best known to itself, but we could be stuck here all day debating just what the difference is.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Sham 69 - That's Life (1978)

Following my review of the Buggles' first album, it was suggested to me that I might like to follow up with a review of Drama, the album recorded by Yes incorporating the Buggles' Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes in the line up. Never having heard a single note of Yes which inspired the thought that I might like to hear more, the suggestion conversely reminded me just how many days have passed since I last gave the second Sham 69 album a spin.

It would be an understatement to say that Sham 69 - and specifically the incarnation of Sham 69 which had hits and broke up in 1979 following the release of The Game - have failed to accrue a posthumous glow of nostalgia in a general sense, leaving aside tittering Stewart Maconie types and those who still turn up to see Sham 69 live, and I suppose the admittedly hilarious Alan Parker the Urban Warrior if anyone still remembers him. If anything Sham 69 have become shorthand for the worst of seventies punk, not least amongst those who probably never really liked punk in the first place. As for anyone who might actually have been around at the time, those insisting that the Clash were the best live band they ever saw will almost certainly tell you that the Clash were a much better live band than Sham 69; and those with green hair or equivalent were almost certainly greening up their hair so as to avoid having to hang around with a bunch of football hooligans; and those who might wax lyrically or otherwise about their time in the Sham Army will probably never find themselves interviewed by Jon Savage or Robert Elms. My take on this is that it's mostly bollocks and should as such be ignored. I would have been about thirteen when I saw Hurry Up Harry on Top of the Pops and it sounded pretty fucking great to me.

Sham 69's supposed crimes seem to have been grounded in the complete lack of art school credentials, and either being a bunch of working class thickies or else appealing to a bunch of working class thickies, as betrayed by all those terrible lyrics - more or less nursery rhymes based on common pairings of you and me, black and white, wrong and right, truth and lies and so on and so forth. I think the worst I've heard has been Blackpool from 1997's The A Files, a song celebrating the semi-regular Punx Picnic festivals:

Yeah, I'm a punk and I'm so proud,
I wanna turn it up, turn it up loud,
'Cos I'm the one with the safety pin,
I'm the one that said let 'em in.

In terms of both sentiment and lyrical dexterity, such lines really aren't so different from the Anthropod Lithontriptic Band's Punk Lives which stated:

Some people reckon 'cause Sid has died,
And the worms have made him into little pies,
The same has happened to punk as well,
And those who do can go to hell!

The difference is that the Anthropod Lithontriptic Band was my friend Graham from school with a tape recorder and an acoustic guitar churning out sarcastic punk anthems which probably only the two of us have ever heard; whilst Sham 69 were grown lads and they were on the telly and everything.

Yet even without the further embarrassment of Jimmy Pursey's songwriting technique which occasionally rhymed certain words with themselves, there are what Wikipedia identifies as football chant backup vocals and an inarticulate political populism, because people who like football are bad and have almost certainly never read The Society of the Spectacle.

Where do you even begin?

Let's start with That's Life which is essentially a concept album made by a band who wouldn't have been able to pull off such a bold move had they really been so crap and lacking in imagination as has been claimed in terms amounting to ideas above their station. It's a kitchen sink drama, a day in the life of an average kid without either green hair or bondage trousers still stuck at home in the late seventies. He wakes up late, misses the bus, is sacked from his job, goes to the betting shop, goes down the pub, tries to cop off with the barmaid, wakes up next day with a hangover and so on. The tale is told as songs with dramatised linking material featuring a very young Pauline Quirke as our boy's long-suffering mum.

It's not Lord of the Rings but it was never meant to be. It's working class life as viewed from the inside, as distinct from the anthropological version retold and revised by those who managed to escape and who never ended up having to do a shit job for minimum wages for the rest of their lives, or who were never there in the first place. It's populist because there's really no point in a desire to kick the boss's teeth in expressed as scented prose. It's about betting shops and football and drinking an excessive pintage of crap lager and getting your end away as these activities were understood before Nick Hornby redefined them as cheeky laddish pleasures in which one might indulge without being afraid to show one's face at the local health food shop next morning. That's Life is a comic book, a big fat burping novelty record in the kitchen sink tradition of the Kinks, the Who, and the like, and if it seems to resemble caricature, then you may have misunderstood.

We've established that Pursey possibly wasn't the greatest lyricist in the world, but there's nothing too shameful here providing you keep in mind that the directness to which you might object is probably the whole point; and he achieves a disarmingly poignant comic poetry in lines such as we're eating a clockwork orange, but I'm spitting out the pips, or the one about being a jumper on the wrong way with the label sticking out. Then there's:

Running for the bus-stop in my flash blue suit,
Someone yells out pouf so I put in the boot!

It's not Shakespeare, but it feels like it is when you're staggering home from the pub after another week of lifting concrete blocks for ten pence an hour; at least it always did to me.

Pursey yelps rather than sings, but you can at least tell that he means it because had he been faking, he probably would have done a better job and sounded more like Billy Bragg; and his yelps are surprisingly soulful once set to the backing of a band who - contrary to at least some popular opinion - were never that bothered about being the Sex Pistols. Sham 69's driving racket always had more in common with the Ramones, with maybe touches of the Who, Slade or similarly noisy English groups of the era. On That's Life they brought in piano, acoustic guitar, Hammond organ and whatever else seemed like it might help get the mood across. Now, nearly forty years later, you could be forgiven for overlooking the fact of this ever having been regarded as a punk album. It's not perfect, but it doesn't sound quite like anything recorded before or since, except possibly bits of Bob Dylan.

So That's Life is the estuary English Bob Dylan who lives with his mum and dad, and couldn't give a shit about revolution so much as just making it through a single day. By rights this one really should be turning up in the same lists as Never Mind the Bollocks and the first Clash album. Yes, it fucking should.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Muslimgauze - The Rape of Palestine (1988)

Recording as Muslimgauze, Bryn Jones released about a million albums, and at least seventy-five thousand of those were posthumous efforts, turded out in the studio faster than whoever was paying to have the things pressed and distributed could handle, at least up until Jones' unfortunate demise from a rare blood disease in 1999. About three or four hundred of those albums passed through my hands, having been sent to Ed Pinsent's Sound Projector for review way back whenever, and they sounded all right, but they mostly sounded like variations on a theme and I ended up passing them on to my friend Carl who seemed to enjoy them more than I did.

As has been noted on a number of occasions, Muslimgauze might be considered a somewhat contentious operation, what with his openly supporting Jihadist suicide bombings and the Palestine Liberation Organisation. The music of Muslimgauze has been for the most part instrumental, with the supposedly political aspect represented by titles and packaging. I say supposedly because personally I've never been entirely convinced about where Jones' apparent fervour was coming from, and I wonder if he really knew himself.

The work of Muslimgauze fixates on Islam and the cultures of the Middle-East. Musically speaking this amounts to lengthy rhythmic pieces either utilising traditional Middle-Eastern instrumentation or else invoking a general effect amounting to the same just as a film soundtrack might evoke a certain culture without quite stooping to imitation. Given how greatly Muslimgauze fixates on Islam and the cultures of the Middle-East, it seems clear that this was a more than passing interest for Jones, and more than a mere aesthetic. Nevertheless, he wasn't a Muslim and he never actually visited an Islamic country, which always struck me as weird given how even I managed Morocco without really trying; and his interviews seem to vary from Muslimgauze as the musical branch of Hamas to no dude, it's just about the tunes so as not to scare those nice Wire readers. There's an argument for Muslimgauze as carrier of a certain anti-Semitic subtext given the Jihadist fixation, but I suspect the truth is more that Bryn Jones was probably just a sad man, living on his own and eating cheese footballs while watching Countdown followed by Richard and Judy, promoting what is actually some pretty decent music with a sabre-rattling helping of shock effects. He certainly hasn't done much to promote a positive image of Islam. The records are aesthetically fascinating, but it's hard to find amongst all that back catalogue a single version of Islam which isn't pointing a gun at you or threatening to chop off your hands for stealing a Hovis. To further reduce it to the essentials, it's a musical experiment utilising the exotic and alien as both structure and as a big scary monster, just like on a death metal record. Were I of Islamic persuasion, I don't think I'd be too happy to have this guy claiming to be on my side.

So before this all starts to sound a bit witch-hunty, I personally doubt that Bryn Jones was ever an anti-Semite, but - and may Allah forgive me for speaking ill of those who have passed on - I suspect he was probably a colossal knob in certain respects, not least that he presented an image of Islam which is more or less indistinguishable from the one I see on Fox News every night; and the last thing this world needs at this end of the twentieth century is more demons.

This album is one of three Muslimgauze records given to me by a fucking cheeky noise music cunt of my former acquaintance who once stayed at my house, ate my food, knackered my tape deck, and then left me a stack of industrial vinyl records as either apology or payment. I was pissed off, but I suppose I shouldn't complain seeing as said records have all turned out to be worth a fucking fortune in recent years, and this is one of them, and for all it being the work of a colossal knob, it is a pretty great record, a fruit of the days when Muslimgauze albums sounded different to each other. This one drones and thumps and pounds, invoking all the stuff you will probably expect if you've read reviews of other Muslimgauze records; and it's hypnotic, and surprisingly beautiful in places. I suppose if nothing else, Jones' silly affectations have at least prevented his work ending up in either the new age or world music ghetto, but it still seems a shame that he had to be such a twat.