Thursday, 27 October 2016

The Cravats - The Land of the Giants (2006)

I'm probably biased in vaguely knowing two Cravats through one former Cravat, namely Martin who was in the very first line up and whom I met on an art foundation course at the Mid Warwickshire College of Further Education.

'Yes, chief,' he told me, because he addressed everyone as chief, 'I used to be in the Cravats.'

I was impressed but also embarrassed through not actually having heard any of their records. I'd seen them in Sounds, and had noted the one bloke's resemblance to the big-haired chappie from the Eraserhead poster, but that was all.

'That's the Shend,' Martin explained. 'He's all the previous members welded together into a single organism.'

The weird thing was that it didn't sound like he was joking.

I rushed to Discovery Records, situated on Regent Street, and made immediate purchase of The Colossal Tunes Out seeing as it had only just hit the shops. Later I met Robin - the guitarist - when Martin recruited him as second driver as we drove down to Maidstone in Kent. Later still, having moved to London, I found myself encountering the Shend in a variety of pubs, usually managing to squeeze out a bit of a chat on the strength of mutual acquaintances, and he always had the decency to pretend to remember me; and more recently he even played one of my crappy songs on his internet radio show. At various points I was in bands with Martin, meaning that had my name ever turned up in one of those Pete Frame rock family trees, I'd be connected to both the Cravats and the Damned by various not actually at all obscure means - which I still find exciting to think about. My point here - aside from the obvious showboating - is that what follows probably won't be particularly subjective, but fuck it...

This collection looked a lot like a farewell when it came out. Aside from a new track recorded with the bloke out of Orbital - a dark but ravey affair utilising samples of previous greats - the Cravats had remained dormant since 1985. Their not particularly secret identity floundered in 1987 when their label elected to throw money at the Sugarcubes rather than at the Very Things' Motortown - mistakenly in my view given that it pisses over anything in which Bjork ever had a hand, but never mind; so The Land of the Giants seemed like closure, and a thematic counterpoint to The Cravats in Toytown, their first album. Robin was recording with Hit the Roof and then Vivarama, and the Shend had his Grimetime and had begun to turn up as a scowling presence in episodes of The Bill, Merlin, and so on. Then suddenly it's 2016, and they're back. Not only playing the possibly inevitable punk festivals, but generating new material, slapping out a single here and there and with enough of the original line-up for it to amount to the same entity emerging from hibernation; so, time to remind everyone what's so great about the Cravats, seeing as a few of you apparently haven't quite got it yet.

The Land of the Giants comprises most of The Colossal Tunes Out - itself a collection of singles - choice cuts from Toytown, plus a few other bits and pieces. It's also one of the few double CDs I have which doesn't sprawl, owing mainly to the peculiar variety of the material. The Cravats were always a punk band even though the fact of it tends to be overlooked at times, but always a pretty weird punk band - sometimes a bit yappy, at others resembling free form jazz forced to hold a tune, and never quite sounding like any other group. Some of it's the saxaphone, but mostly its an aesthetic owing more to John Heartfield era Dadaism than to green-haired punk rockers saying bollocks on Top of the Pops. It might even be argued that the Cravats were the closest English music came to the Residents, or at least the closest without any hint of actually trying to sound like the Residents - as might be said of Renaldo and the Loaf. Always a punk band in regard to what any of it was actually about, so if low on slogans, the Cravats subversive message was their medium, hence the lasting association with Crass and others. If you thought this was mainly just a cartoon then you've missed the point.

I can't think of what else to say. The Cravats are one of the greatest groups of all time, and if you claim to have any interest in music beyond toes tapped to a natty Marty Robbins tune on the wireless yet know ye not the Cravats, then you really don't love music as much as you think you do. I keep writing was and were but of course I mean is and still are, and there still are a few copies of Jingo Bells to be had, and my copy of Blurred came just this morning, and they're supposedly working on a new album - so it's time the rest of you started paying attention; and if this won't convince you...

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Cockney Rejects - Greatest Hits Vol. 1 (1980)

Why did it take me thirty years to get around to buying this thing? I suppose because I thought it was fucking stupid - four Cockney gibbons jumping up and down oo-oo-oohing to a Sham 69 b-side, and not even one of the good ones. This was the impression I picked up from reading Garry Bushell's gushing praise week after week in Sounds, most of which was additionally concerned with impressing upon me that the Cockney Rejects would kick my head in should they ever encounter me walking down the street. They would immediately recognise me as middle class because I read books, still addressed my mother as mummy despite being fifteen years of age, didn't like sport, did like art, and was terrified of the hard kids at school; and having identified me as Lord Ponsonby-Fortescue-Smythe III, the Cockney Rejects would kick my fucking head in and then go to a football match or summink.

Of course, I've since come to recognise this classification of the working classes as violent gorillas who can't read and who spend most of their spare time burping the national anthem as a romantic misconception perpetrated largely by grammar school poshos like Bushell, but I wish someone had told me sooner. I always liked Sham 69 - who were obviously something of an inspiration to the Cockney Rejects - but I somehow felt Stinky and the boys were just a little too far in the wrong direction. Whilst I never mistook the whole Oi! thing for anything inherently racist - as has often been claimed - there was doubtless some of that element in there just as Sham 69 experienced problems with a far-right bonehead following they couldn't seem to shake, and if nothing else, Oi! always seemed kind of slow to refute its jackbooted reputation, at least generally speaking.

Nevertheless, with regard to hooligan credentials, I've probably worked with postmen at least as mental as any of the Rejects ever were; and as you get older you begin to see through certain social constructs, like the notion that any expression of working class culture still waiting for a retrospective at the ICA is probably in bed with the National Front. It's all bollocks, as should be obvious from these comments by Mick Geggus I've nicked from Louder Than War:

When I heard that Channel Four had used a section of Oi Oi Oi in a programme including themes of racism, I was so angry I nearly choked... If the privileged, middle class twats had even bothered to listen to the lyrics, they would know that the kids they come from everywhere, the east end’s all around means exactly that - a rallying call to kids across the globe, from Athens to Zanzibar... My band and I have fought narrow minded people from both sides of the political divide for over three decades now, and we have the scars to prove it.

Further evidence can be found on YouTube, should it be needed, not least a particularly satisfying clip of Jeff Turner going postal on sieg heiling fuck-trumpets at a gig back in 2014; which I guess leaves us with just the music.

One thing Bushell got right was this album having that same explosive energy as Never Mind the Bollocks, or whatever it was he said. For some reason I've come to think of Oi! as a sort of 90MPH cement-mixer version of punk - verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse, chorus and it's over, with more or less every line being yap-yap-yap bark-bark-bark yap-yap-yap (pause for a single beat) Oi!

I don't know how I got this impression.

Some of it's like that, but not the good stuff, and not on this record. Mostly the sound is loud and lively, but still sharp and clear as a cut-throat razor; and the tunes are even poppy once you get past the brick wall of noise, and surprisingly happy too. Of course, as you might gather, there's some righteous class anger on here, but it's a pumped up adrenaline fuelled anger. It leaves you feeling good, and even with all the fists flying and dispensation of good-natured violence, there's a friendly quality to the whole enterprise. This record was speaking for an entire terminally marginalised culture, and the sheer camaraderie is irresistible, once you realise that these guys aren't the enemy, and they never were the enemy.

Like I say, I wish someone had told me sooner.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Kevin Harrison - Tape Recordings 1975-1985 (2016)

I always get the impression that Kevin Harrison should probably be a little more famous than he is - fame here translating to people hearing about your music, saying nice things, then buying it so that you can keep on making it and don't end up having to get a job in Tesco. That said, I've never been quite sure as to the precise extent of his fame. I first read about him in Martin Bowes' Alternative Sounds zine back in 1981, so he's always seemed sort of famous to me. I don't remember if he ever got name-checked in Dave Henderson's Wild Planet columns in Sounds, but given the wackily eclectic mix of that which Henderson covered and the sort of records Kevin has put out, he really should have been. I suppose, if nothing else, at least no-one is calling him an industrial legend or asking what he thinks about Charles Manson.

According to his website, Kevin Harrison's earliest sonic experiments were performed at the age of twelve, dropping nuts and bolts into a bucket of water then manipulating the sounds produced on the family tape recorder, and all whilst the Beatles were still in lovable moptop mode; leading to art school, and then to a bizarrely varied if somewhat underpublicised musical career which never quite seemed to square with any established or conventionally marketable pattern. These recordings might be seen as roughly kin to that whole krautrock thing, but there's always been more to the man - soul-driven dance pop with the band Urge, collaborations with various Specials and other Coventry luminaries, hanging out with members of DDAA, This Heat, and Tuxedo Moon: the guy is interesting before you've even heard a note.

Tape Recordings 1975-1985 is, as you might surmise, mostly instrumental, but never quite ambient. The fifteen tracks cover a broad range of moods - and very little which sounds like bedroom recordings, if that bothers anyone - but more than anything seem to suggest a film soundtrack, specifically the kind of effects heavy 16mm freak out genre which prevailed at the hairier end of the seventies. Guitars chime and echo off into analogue eternity as a church organ lights the darkness, and other sounds creep in, mutated beyond recognition or just hanging in the sky like giant Zardoz heads.

This is a wonderful record, and if you're new to this guy's work, it should really be considered just the beginning...

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Public Image Ltd. - Second Edition (1979)

...or Metal Box or whatever you want to call it. I have a great many all-time favourite albums, and of their number this is the one I have probably heard the least. I'm pretty sure that at some point an entire decade has passed without my having listened to this record, quite possibly two decades.

Public Image Ltd. were the first proper group that I liked when, at the age of about twelve, I graduated from playing my trusty quartet of Beatles albums into flexidiscs to listening to the top forty countdown on the wireless and noting that I quite liked some of this new punk rock stuff, or whatever it was, and I found Public Image particularly hypnotic. It wasn't that I hadn't liked anything before that point, but it had mostly been Abba and that sort of thing - tastes which neither translated into vinyl nor endured beyond puberty to any great extent. Public Image expressed something I didn't even know required expression, a sort of alienation or sense of distance dividing myself from almost everyone else; and the weird thing - at least with hindsight - is that I discovered Public Image Ltd. before I'd even heard of the Sex Pistols and spent a couple of months doubting that there was really any connection.

Having discovered music, it still took me a while to see the benefit of spending my pocket money on something other than Doctor Who books or Micronauts, and it didn't quite dawn on me that there might be a Public Image Ltd. album until Dean Howe tried to sell me his copy of Metal Box. I think he'd found it disappointing. Conversely I thought it was great, but those three discs didn't seem to like my record player, and the needle jumped all over the shop. Looking closely at the vinyl, the grooves resembled little zig-zag lines presumably due to the deep bass frequencies. Dean sold it to someone else, and I eventually bought the reissue when it came out as a more conventional double album. Annoyingly I've found this version similarly difficult to play even now that I have a relatively fancy record player, and so the thing has just sat in my collection ignored more or less since I bought it.

I suppose the benefit of all this, if there is one, is how fresh it still sounds now that I've chanced upon a copy on compact disc. By means I don't even understand, I know the thing like the proverbial back of my hand - every last little scrape and clang - and yet listening to it in 2016 is much like hearing it for the first time.

The Public Image Ltd. debut album, which I heard after I'd bought this one, seemed a transitional affair - a great big noisy discordant fuck you with all of the Chuck Berry sucked out of the mix just in case anyone had been anticipating Sex Pistols part two. Rotten seemed on the defensive, very much resenting the mechanics of his own fame, and yet unwilling to quite disappear off the deep end like some spoilt rock star recording an album of his own farts, so for all the walls of noise, First Issue pulls back from rewriting Metal Machine Music and heads off in roughly the same direction as Siouxsie and the Banshees.

Metal Box was where everything really came together. Rotten no longer sounds like he's even thought about anything relating to the Pistols for at least a year, and more than anything they're making the record they want to hear. You probably already know what it does - lengthy jams which sound very much as though they were improvised live, repetition and a certain minimalism allowing one to fully appreciate the acoustics, and easily as hypnotic as that first single. Coming back to this, I've also been surprised at how much electronic sound is woven through the structure of the record - often barely within earshot - and also how much is entirely instrumental. It's a frosty affair succinctly encapsulating how Britain felt in 1978 without recourse to slogans - damp and conducive to death - born as a vague fusion of dub reggae and all the German stuff of which Rotten was a fan, but not quite sounding like either. Aside from my preferring Another, the b-side of Memories, to its instrumental which appears on here as Graveyard, this really is a perfect record, and it will remain a perfect record regardless of how many Country Life butter adverts he appears in.