Thursday, 30 June 2016

Nocturnal Emissions - Shake Those Chains, Rattle Those Cages (1985)

This seems an odd one even for a band who weren't above releasing albums packaged in a nappy - or diaper if you're reading this in the United States. Nocturnal Emissions had moved into moderately more tuneful territories since 1983's Viral Shedding - a rare beast which actually does sort of sound like house music before house music was a thing - or at least into the territory of their customary noise assault cannily rearranged so as to fool you into thinking it's pop music. Songs of Love and Revolution was some kind of punk hybrid with synthesisers and a refreshingly direct message - let's throw bricks at coppers rather than any of that I'm interestingly pretending to be Hitler so as to make a wry, playful comment on the nature of consumerism bollocks which was apparently still paying the bills at le Ch√Ęteau de Porridge; and then this turned up in the shops and I bought it because it was Nocturnal Emissions.

More recently I finally got hold of Caroline K's Now Wait For Last Year, having been a bit skint when it first came out and not having realised there had been a reissue by Klanggalerie - which has inevitably sent me back to this one because some of the tracks are clearly related. I suppose this dates from roughly around the time that Caroline K was becoming less involved in Nocturnal Emissions, and Shake Those Chains, Rattle Those Cages feels like a collection of loose ends gathered together before moving onto the next thing, which by my calculations would have been the more organic, archaeological version of the Emissions and the setting up of Earthly Delights as a label.

All that being said, this is possibly my favourite Nocturnal Emissions record.

The live side was recorded at Bourbonese Qualk's Ambulance Station pretty much at the height of the British government being at war with its own people last time around, what with the miners' strike and everything; and it's unfortunately not that remarkable, an efficiently recorded snapshot of Nocturnal Emissions resumption of noisier activities whilst still wrestling with things that sound almost like songs.

The studio side however - just four tracks presumably constituting Caroline's final work with the band - represent some of the most emotionally powerful stuff I've heard from any band saddled with the unfortunate tag of industrial. Cleaner instrumental renderings of a couple of the tracks resurfaced on Now Wait For Last Year, but for my money, they were at their best here. The key to their power in this instance is that Nocturnal Emissions were writing songs using melody and sound with the same vaguely brutalist hand which informs the noise of Tissue of Lies and those earlier rackets; so the music sounds like a noise half-heard pounding away through reinforced concrete which has accidentally formed itself into something of near classical grandeur. The arrangement is at times so evocative it makes you want to cry, an invocation of the saddest thing in the world, a moment of such profound sorrow that only music could describe it - and of course it's very much a Nocturnal Emissions arrangement with everything in the wrong place, deliberately awkward, too loud or too quiet and just for the sake of seeing what the fuck will happen.

Nine o'clock... nine-thirty... nine minutes to ten...

Until what? Until they take you out to the back of the chemical sheds and stick a bullet in your head, by the sound of it; but it could just as well be about love. It has the same gravity.

I haven't been able to find a single review of this record online, which seems peculiar given the numerous eulogies recently written about Caroline's solo album - deservedly so, but this is still a more satisfying work for my money - one of the all-time greats in fact.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Psychic TV - Beyond thee Infinite Beat (1990)

I've been somewhat down on the Porridge from time to time, although not in a sexual sense, obviously - that would be grotesque. This comes in part from having been a massive squeeing Throbbing Gristle devotee back when they were still an actual group, first time around. I couldn't get enough. I even had - and still have - those obscure bootleg tapes that were doing the rounds back then, the formative Death Factory studio stuff with Albrecht D and so on; so I was pretty serious about my dedication to the Gristle is what I'm saying. For me, they were not merely some name I encountered twenty years later whilst watching a documentary about Depeche fucking Mode, you smell me?

The appeal of Throbbing Gristle was the bizarre, alien sounds, not quite musical in the traditional sense and yet holding one's attention just the same; and the unsettling subject matter, usually tied in with the slightly sinister appeal of Porridge's monologue. He had a fascinating voice and - to break it down to something which would make sense in a pub - some of that was because we were listening just to see what he would come out with next. So when Throbbing Gristle split and Porridge took to believing his own hype, and it emerged that he'd actually wanted to be Lou Reed all along or at least just a fairly interesting pop star, I personally felt somewhat let down. It transpired that those once surreally absorbing monologues weren't so much inspired as simply because he'd never worked out how to shut it off, and those occasionally terrifying and always fascinating alien soundtracks had been largely dependent on who he'd been stood next to at the time. That's how it looked to me.

I bought the first two Psychic TV albums on the days they came out, and sold both of them within a year or so. Not even the customarily talented Alex Ferguson could save Psychic TV from their Jim Jones figurehead. There were a few things here and there which sounded sort of okay - Unclean and maybe some of Those Who Do Not - but the good stuff always seemed to be an exception to the rule.

Then in the late eighties, Porridge discovered acid house and somehow decided that it was sort of what he'd been doing along, and I laughed so much that I went out and bought one. Specifically I bought a couple on the grounds of the records having found their way into a bargain bin with surprising haste - first Jack the Tab, then the amusingly named Tekno Acid Beat, and finally this one. Jack the Tab is actually great - possibly thanks to the involvement of Richard Norris of the Grid - although it bears so little resemblance to house music that it might as well have been an Art of Noise album.

Tekno Acid Beat is the sound of people who've worked out how to programme a reasonable impersonation of the extended part of a Blow Monkeys 12" because acid house is just a drum machine going bum-bum-bum innit and you have some samples over the top like a bloke from off the telly saying far out a few times and stuff like that - piece of piss, mate; with Porridge and pals all giving themselves special kids on the street names like DJ Doktor Megatrip spelled with an industrial k, firmly stamping the whole clueless enterprise as someone's dad wearing a baseball cap turned backwards whilst declaring that everything is cool. Even the cover looked cheap and nasty, a ludicrous Psychic TV skull with a smiley acid face and all the class of a seventies Top of the Pops album. Somehow I wanted to like it. I really did; but every time I slapped the disc on, the music was the same - something which sounded as though it had been knocked off in about forty minutes, start to finish.

I gather this one involved a few of the same people, but somehow it seemed more promising, with a much better cover plus it was only a couple of quid and I was amused by Porridge having suddenly taken to claiming to have almost formed a band with Ian Curtis of Joy Division; and you know what - it ain't bad!

Of course this is a remix album, a remix album of ravemaster mixes; because when you go to one of those raves with the kids there's usually a ravemaster in charge, yeah?


Anyway, being a remix album it's mostly instrumental, so not much in the way of Porridge wailing the usual stuff about how he sees you and he thinks you're very nice; and given my theory - which I should make clear really is just a theory - that Porridge is musically only ever as interesting as who he's stood next to at the time - I guess this one is mostly a Fred Gianelli album, possibly with some bits of Dave Ball thrown in; and given that Fred Gianelli seems to know what he's doing and has actually heard house music, this does at least sound like what it's trying to be. The beats are a little obvious, predicated on the idea that all house music is bass-hi-hat-snare-hi-hat and repeat for ten minutes, but beyond that it's surprisingly good. The bass works as bass should, there's plenty of space, and very little of the bleeding obvious - that Italo house piano that turned up on fucking everything for a while, for one example. Additionally, much of this record has an oddly sombre tone, in contrast to much house music of the time, and by association enough original design to suggest some work and thought went into the composition, as opposed to a process amounting to that'll do because all it ever needed to be was a sound in the background of a Porridge monologue.

Of course, I could be wrong, and the man himself may have had a major hand in why this is a great record; although I've just listened to Towards thee Infinite Beat on YouTube - the album of which this is a remix - and it's mostly business as usual so I suspect possibly not.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Athletico Spizz 80 - Do A Runner (1980)

Hearing Where's Captain Kirk? on the radio in the evenings  probably constituted my first awareness of it being possible for music to be wonderful without troubling the mainstream top forty or ending up introduced to pop picking telly viewers by a flared kiddy fiddler. Prior to the two or three spins it took for the song to sink in, I'm not sure I was even aware of there having been music other than stuff which had been on Top of the Pops at some point. Spizz, who by then had expanded to Athletico Spizz 80, featured in a double-page spread in my first ever issue of Sounds music paper, which I bought having become increasingly frustrated with the some of the hopeless shite receiving coverage in Smash Hits. The Sounds feature was illustrated by, if I remember correctly, team Spizz leaping athletically around a basketball court in what would eventually be recognised as skateboarding gear, and it made me think of Devo, another fairly recent discovery for me.

I've never quite stopped thinking of Devo where Spizz are concerned, which isn't to imply any sort of influence of one on the other, only that Spizz seemed to be the English expression of whatever had caused Devo. There seemed to be a shared sense of humour, a similar love of retrofuturism; and of course both bands have been regarded as faintly ludicrous novelty acts by those for whom anything with less testosterone than Ted Nugent may as well be Pinky & Perky. I have no strong recollection of how Do A Runner was greeted by the music press back then but suspect it may have been a general scratching of the head, as typified by an unusually Partridge-esque David Hepworth asking, 'It seems to me that the album sees Spizz going in a lot more serious direction than the singles previously had done. What do you think about that?' on the wireless back in August, 1980, to which Spizz himself responded:

Well, I don't know about that. Singles are supposed to be fun, pokey, short, snappy things and albums are just a whole wider range of what someone can do with a recorded piece, and that's what it is. It's basically a collection of all the songs which we didn't want to see disappear without reaching vinyl. We wanted to get all these out on record before they disappeared because we thought they were worth it and we didn't want to lose them, or to get tired or get old before they got to vinyl.

The notion of Spizz as a novelty act - as differentiated from simply a band or bands with a sense of humour - most likely stems from the success of Where's Captain Kirk?, doubtless fortified by later Trekkie-pleasing songs such as Spock's Missing and Five Year Mission; but it's a warped vision, as is obvious even from a quick ear cast in the general direction of the aforementioned fun, pokey, short, and snappy singles - not least the magnificent No Room which still makes most other records of that year sound shit, to be quite honest. Similarly, Do A Runner hardly constitutes frowning modernist essays from a former circus entertainer, what with the wilfully ludicrous Clocks Are Big and the general spirit of the thing, and - for fuck's sake - how could we ever have forgotten?:

Nuclear scientist producing plutonium,
Nasty little substance that we can't controlleum.

I suspect it's simply that we like a little more narrative consistency in our rock ascendencies, and Do A Runner was always at a serious tangent to a bloke jumping on stage with a guitar at some punk gig and making stuff up. It is equivalent, I suppose, to a new John Otway album sounding like Tangerine Dream; not that this does, but it's hard to miss the eight-minute pseudo-krautrock instrumental of Airships, or the weirdly angular Beefheartisms of Intimate, Rhythm Inside and others; except I suspect most of this material simply evolved out of the combination of these five people being in the band that year, and these being five people with no real interest in simply chugging out a few standards.

Do A Runner wasn't really quite like anything I'd heard back in 1980, and it still sounds reasonably unique thirty-five years later. I know Spizz did okay and is still remembered, but what with this one and Spiky Dream Flowers, I still don't quite get why he wasn't much, much bigger. I suppose someone will eventually dig this out and be able to listen to it without thinking of William Shatner, maybe even appreciate it for it's own very considerable merits. Maybe that person will turn out to have been me.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

The Goodies - The World of the Goodies (1973)

For the benefit of younger readers or anyone who genuinely believes there's really such a thing as a YouTube celebrity, Decca's World Of albums were pretty much everywhere in the early seventies - budget-priced compilations or reissues, usually the oeuvre of easy listening types but with a few oddities making up the numbers. My copy of Bowie's debut album is the Decca reissue as The World of David Bowie, for example, and it still seems a shame that we never had The World of Adam and the Ants collecting those early demos about rubber trousers and having a lady step upon one's bollocks, doubtless illustrated with an anachronistic stock photo of himself performing on The Basil Brush Show.

The World of the Goodies was possibly the eighth album I ever owned - following four by the Beatles, two film soundtracks, and Doctor Who and the Pescatons - costing me a Dinky Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle or similar from my friend Sean. I spent a lot of afternoons around Sean's house over the summer holidays, during which time we played this one into a flexidisc, alongside the Remember You're A Womble album and Spike Milligan's Record Load of Rubbish. It was also Sean who introduced me to the Sex Pistols a couple of years later, inadvertently inspiring the cull which led me to get rid of this one because it wasn't punky enough, and it was a comedy record, which definitely wasn't punk, or summink; but thanks to us now living in the future and the existence of the internet, I am able to correct my mistake.

The Goodies was of course the wacky television situation comedy which rewrote the King of Monsters as a giant kitten and introduced the idea of a biological weapon which turns its victims into circus clowns. It was Monty Python for kids - although for my money it seems to have aged a little better - and so this, a reissue of The Goodies Sing Songs from the Goodies, was their debut album, or - seeing as there's no point denying it - their debut novelty record.

The more one attempts to define what constitutes a novelty record, the more a consistent definition proves elusive. The crudest division, and the one I probably subscribed to when my first copy of The World of the Goodies found itself airbrushed from history, demands that novelty records lack authenticity of some sort, that they aren't real in quite the same way as the first Clash album is supposedly real. However, as I seem to recall Stewart Home writing in Cranked Up Really High, punk was mostly novelty records, or at least the good stuff was; which leaves me with a newer definition, namely that novelty records simply divide listeners into those who enjoy music, and those who principally enjoy being perceived as connoisseurs of the right sort of music - which is usually the stuff you find making up the lists in Mojo magazine. Although of course comedy records and novelty records aren't always the same thing, and we're definitely on significantly thinner ice with the comedy album, possibly because comedy is such a subjective experience. For myself, anything which introduces itself as either crazy or hilarious will always need to work at least three times as hard to get a laugh, and if you have to tell people that what you're doing is funny, then it probably isn't.

The Residents, for example, recorded an album of electronic interpretations of traditional Inuit music - a work which seems fairly typical in the context of their back catalogue. On the other hand, Weird Al Yankovic's career seems to have been mostly cover versions of established hits embellished with comedy lyrics - sort of like Mitch Benn, Richard Stilgoe, and all those other unfunny fuckers. There's a massive difference, and it is signified by the fact that the Residents chose that name rather than - titter snurf - The Weird Residents. Do you see?

There's some funny shit on The World of the Goodies - mostly comprised of songs written as incidental music for the television show - but it succeeds because Bill Oddie was almost certainly a frustrated rock star, so, like much of the Bonzos back catalogue, these are songs with a sense of humour - or wit as we sometimes call it in the trade - rather than just comedy with tunes. Not that there's anything wrong in comedy with tunes, and the faux-country misery of Mummy I Don't Like My Meat does its job well:

Tomorrow we'll curry the poodle,
He should last us a couple of days...

However, were it nothing but gags, it might become repetitive quite quickly, so thankfully it isn't. Oddie has a great bluesy voice which lends itself fairly well to everything from heartfelt gospel to growling biker anthems; and Taking You Back is in particular a magnificent beast, pounding rock bordering on acid-fuelled Hendrixisms which more or less justifies whatever price you might have to pay for a copy of this thing. Elsewhere we swerve in and out of some fairly convincing progressive pseudo-p-funk work-outs, folksy interludes, and the sort of whimsy you might associate with the Kinks and the like - notably Winter Sportsman; and most crucially of all, it sounds like a proper record rather than just three blokes smirking at you and pulling faces for forty minutes.

Most surprising for me has been how much of this thing I had forgotten, possibly because at the age of ten it was mainly the jokes which caught my attention. I suppose this means that this one has been a grower in the fullest sense of the term - aside from the fact of it being missing from my collection for at least three decades - and I'm astonished by how fresh and exciting it still sounds compared to so much of the chugging session player muso crap which emerged from the same decade, and which seems generally better remembered because most of us enjoy being seen as connoisseurs of the right sort of music, more than we enjoy the music itself.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Ghostface Killah - Fishscale (2006)

It's true what they say about how time seems to whizz past as you get older. I still think of this as the new Ghostface record, despite it having come out over a decade ago and being, according to Wikipedia, eight albums past for Mr. Killah. Well, I only just happened across a copy recently, and I've been having a pretty busy time of it over the last decade, so that's my excuse.

For anyone suffering an even greater degree of either senility or general ignorance than myself, Ghostface Killah has long been one of the main reasons you would ever buy a Wu-Tang Clan record - a man named after someone from a martial arts flick and one of the few rappers who can get away with breaking down in James Brown-style tears on a stage without having tiresome wankers question his masculinity. His delivery is engaging and so intensely personal that it's hard not to find yourself affected, drawn into the telling, even given how seriously fucking weird that telling can sometimes be - the rap Mark E. Smith on some days, if that isn't too lazy an analogy.

Fishscale - slang for the absolute Ferrero Rocher of nose candy, you may not be entirely surprised to learn - is unusually focussed, and low on random bursts of surrealism, instead seeming to follow a loosely coherent narrative. Admittedly it's probably not the first time we've encountered said narrative - times being tough, selling the nose candy just to get by, memories of wetting the bed and getting spanked, life on the mean streets and so on and so forth - but it's as valid a tale as it's ever been given that the same terms and conditions still apply for half the people listening to this thing and some of those involved in recording it. Additionally, it's worth remembering that Ghostface is more or less incapable of delivering a prosaic line and could make a laundry list sound like a matter of life and death.

It probably helps that Fishscale is musically similar to Supreme Clientele - his previous masterpiece - being a rough and raw summation of old soul moves which really hit the point home, giving a rich and emotionally potent support to the story as it unfolds; and yes, soul music - because we seem to have forgotten how that stuff was once as raw and painful as fuck, a very different, significantly more powerful beast than the slick and shiny suited croon-wank it became in the eighties. Ghostface clearly hasn't forgotten, and here we get something warm with bad lighting, broken piano and horn sections rescued from crumbling old eight tracks and scratchy discs cut in dirt cheap studios. It has the feel of a live band without sounding anything like one, definitely something organic, even when it obviously isn't - the tape recording of a ping-pong match looped to embellish the beat on Dogs of War, for example; the terrifying drone of Clipse of Doom; and Jellyfish which weirdly reminds me of Stereolab. At least on this album, Ghostface Killah, excels at giving you something entirely unlike whatever you've already heard which nevertheless feels as fundamentally rooted in the very heart of its culture as anything which ever happened in a Bronx basketball court in the seventies. It should also be kept in mind that this review is probably a verbose load of old wank, so it would be easier all round if you just listened to the album.