Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Psychic TV - Those Who Do Not (1984)

Having been a fan of Throbbing Gristle to the point of evangelism, I knew Psychic TV would be even more amazing before I'd even heard a note, or at least a clang. I listened to Force the Hand of Chance over and over once it finally appeared, gritting my teeth and insisting that it was a work of unparalleled genius, as I would clearly begin to appreciate after sufficient exposure. Then out came the second album, which was better, but which in being better, obliged me to face up to the fact of Force the Hand of Chance having been a massive disappointment; and the more Porridge explained his own genius to the media, the more I began to feel a little as though I'd been diddled, until I eventually sold those first two albums and dedicated what little disposable income I had to purchase of music which didn't require quite such a massive suspension of disbelief.

Then my friend Thomas Hamilton came to stay for a couple of days, and he happened to have this record with him.

'I've given up on them,' I explained, 'because they're shit.'

Nevertheless, we stuck the discs on my record player, one after the other because there were two of them; and against all expectation, it sounded pretty good. In fact it sounded more like I'd hoped they would sound before Force the Hand of Chance pissed on my dreams. Three decades later, finally bothering to bag myself a copy, it's quite nice to discover that my memory hasn't been playing tricks.

I've generally tended to the view that Porridge is only ever as interesting as who he's stood next to at the time, whether it be Alex Ferguson, Fred Giannelli, Dave Ball, or the rest of Throbbing Gristle; because otherwise we're just left with his own ideas, such as they are, and a bunch of people stood around saying yes, Genesis, that's really great, or at least that's how it sounds to me - although the theory works better if you try not to think about the bloody awful records he's made despite the involvement of those named above, or others who should have known better. This time he was backed by John Gosling, Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, and various members of KUKL, the Icelandic band from which the Sugarcubes were eventually born. It sounds like a live performance, mostly improvised, and of all Psychic TV I've heard, comes closest to the live ambience of Throbbing Gristle - which is a bonus because those live tapes constituted their best material, in my view. Being Psychic TV, the emphasis is on rituals and drones and spooky rather than electronic. There are bells and clangs and tapes and sounds amounting to something resembling a more ponderous Hawkwind, or maybe some obscure krautrock group; and Porridge sounds sufficiently unpredictable and scary enough to remind us why we ever liked him in the first place, those of us who actually did. It's a shame he couldn't keep it up, but two or three decent albums out of the hundred or so which have earned Porridge that prestigious listing in the Guinness Book of Records is still better than all of them having been duds; so yay - go Porridge, you old ledge!

Next week I shall be ruminating on the creative brilliance of Jeff Lynne's Electric Light Orchestra.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

The Members - At the Chelsea Nightclub (1979)

Have you ever noticed how much punk rock was concerned with wanking? Close to half the playing time of At the Chelsea Nightclub seems to concern itself with banging one out by agency of a firm hand and dirty thoughts. I've consequently developed a pet theory about this being the principle factor distinguishing late seventies punk - and related affectations - with what came before. I floated the idea on facebook, and whilst a few precedents were offered - and no less than two from the Who - earlier hymns to masturbation have generally been couched in more veiled, poetic, or even heroic terms, and it's only once we get to the Jubilee year that you really start to hear songs revelling in the sweat-drenched shame of burping the worm following purchase of gentleman's interest material from a newsagent staked out for a full two hours beforehand so as to be certain that no-one I knew was you know is already in there. Everyone had a song about wanking - the Stranglers, Alternative TV, the Vapors, Pork Dukes, Buzzcocks, Snivelling Shits, the Undertones, Devo, even Gary Numan - in fact especially Gary Numan, come to think of it; and this is why punk was great.

At the Chelsea Nightclub is what punk sounded like outside the capitol, in small satellite towns up and down the country with kids desperate to relieve the crushing boredom and apparent lack of any future other than one channelled through some fucking awful technical college; and of sufficient desperation as to not really give a shit about the cool or the moody - hence the healthy appreciation of both tunes and fun. There's a lot about this record which will have attracted subsequent frowning, and at least two of the twelve songs refer to something on the cover of a magazine, which I seem to recall being a popular lyric amongst your skinny tie types that year, and of course there are all those yobbo foghorn backing vocals. The Members were - and possibly still are - something inhabiting a point equidistant between pub rock, the Clash, maybe a bit of the Stranglers, and with a great big splodge of cod reggae thrown in because it was 1979. I already knew the album had potential on the strength of The Sound of the Suburbs being one of the greatest singles of all time, but it's somehow taken me three decades to buy the thing.

Amazingly, it's a genuinely great album without a weak track, and - at least for me - a powerful invocation of those long hot seventies summers of Midlands Today, getting drunk for the very first time, and failing to have sex with anyone besides myself. I'd object to the cod reggae but I can't because it's done so well and with such love as to bypass all possible propensity for sneering. Nicky Tesco singing in his special reggae voice might seem initially odd, like a vocal equivalent of blackface, but really it's just what suits the music and surely isn't any more an impersonation than all those phony American accents on rock records. Furthermore, there's Love in a Lift - a more excitingly sordid precedent to Aerosmith's shitty airbrushed hair metal anthem of '89 - which welds cod reggae to some of the most powerful twang heard since Duane Eddy; and Offshore Banking Business seemed to notice a specific problem with capitalism at least two decades before everyone else started going on about it. It's one of those records which sounds initially familiar, then begins to bear less and less resemblance to anything else you've heard, the more you listen.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

New Order - Movement (1981)

Something or other had given me cause to wonder what those other New Order albums were like. It seemed strange that I'd never bought any of them, given how much I liked the first album. Then having a quick look on the racks I realised that actually I had bought a couple of them, specifically Power, Corruption and Lies and Technique, and with no idea as to how or when they came to be in my collection. I listened to Power, Corruption and Lies, and I already knew Age of Consent from somewhere, so the first side sounded familiar, and yet side two didn't for some reason. Otherwise, the best that can be said of Power, Corruption and Lies is that it sounds like a demo by one of those promising local bands featuring a bass player who clearly wanted to be Peter Hook, which was actually most local bands at the beginning of the eighties.

Technique was even worse, if marginally better produced, sounding like something you would hear played during the commercial for the new Nissan Micra. I'm not sure if New Order enjoy any sort of repute as the most boring band of all time, but they probably should do.

So where the fuck did it all go wrong?

I vividly recall the buzz surrounding Joy Division before I ever heard any of their music. Then one day my friend Graham got hold of Transmission, so I went around to his house for a listen.

It started off well.

'Is it an instrumental or something?' I asked after about a minute.

'Yes,' said Graham, straight-faced and enjoying my confusion.

'Radio… live transmission,' crooned the unusually deep voice at last, after what seemed like an absurdly lengthy introduction, then again, 'Radio… live transmission.'

'So there is singing,' I said happily.

'Yes, but that's it.'

'What? You mean that's the whole song, just those words?'

'Yes,' said Graham, trying not to laugh. 'That's the whole song.'

Obviously it wasn't, but the impression endured; and whilst I liked Joy Division enough to tape everything, even the bootlegs Graham occasionally got hold of, for some reason I never bought their records. At least, I had the singles, but not the albums. Curtis always sounded like a man doing a comedy deep voice, and it always seemed to get in the way; and I found Closer somehow empty and underwhelming, just nicely arranged marble statues not actually saying very much; and yes, Joy Divison were great, but…

Movement felt like the first proper Joy Division album to me, the one where they got it right - a perfect blend of pseudo-classical melancholia and the more wistful, cautiously uptempo moods which began to emerge on Closer, but were drowned out by a certain Orson Welles impersonator. Sumner's vocals are relatively weak but they suit the music better, at least on Movement, doing a job without ever dominating or upsetting the fine balance. Of course, it's terrible that it should have taken a death in the family to get them to this place, but then none of us are going to live forever, so it is what it is. For my money, Movement is magnificent and as such remains the greatest album made by any of those involved, not least Martin Hannett; and from now on I just won't think about what came after.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Looney Tunes (1976)

I discovered punk rock at the age of fourteen, roughly speaking. Prior to that, I had my four Beatles albums - which had been my record collection since the age of eleven or so - and I thought Abba were quite good, but most of all I liked novelty records because I was a kid - my friend Sean's Wombles album, the Goodies, and this compilation, borrowed from Paul Moorman who lived on the farm next to ours and who was in my class at school. K-Tel's Looney Tunes is significant in being the first album I ever taped, having been given a mono portable tape recorder for Christmas, or possibly my birthday. I hadn't really thought about the thing until I chanced across a copy in Half-Price Books and realised what it was. I hadn't really thought about it because Looney Tunes dropped off my radar pretty fucking quickly once I discovered punk rock, which I regarded as proper grown up music, although it's probably ironic that the thing which first drew me to punk rock was that they said rude words on the telly, which was funny. Not for nothing does Stewart Home characterise the most successful punk bands as novelty acts in Cranked Up Really High, but anyway...

Thirty five years later, these twenty-four tracks, all crammed into tiny grooves so as to achieve maximum value for money, sound astonishingly good, perhaps even better than they did to my fourteen-year old ears, not least because this is mostly stuff you won't read about in the usual rock histories, the usual grown-up rock histories…

Interestingly, it's not even a couple of dozen actual looney tunes. Naturally, we have out and out comedy records such as Shaving Cream and The Streak, but there's plenty which simply chugs along on some kind of vague novelty value - The Bird's the Word or Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow, which surely only count as comedy on the grounds of having presented a more authentic doo-wop experience than Perry Como; and then we have Tiny Tim's song about tulips, whatever the hell you'd call that. The thing which stands out for me - excepting the two proper children's numbers, Rubber Duckie and that fucking awful Chipmunk shite - is how most of those gathered here are just great songs, regardless of comic thrust. Susan Christie's I Love Onions still reminds me of the Residents; and Jumpin' Gene Simons' Haunted House is a gorgeous slice of hillbilly inflected country evocative as a childhood sunset; and Lonnie Donegan's surprisingly enduring My Old Man's a Dustman establishes a clear link to the Sex Pistols and all that, even though I probably wouldn't have quite been able to say why back when I first heard it.

The more you listen, the more obvious it becomes how some of these songs are genuinely odd, even avant-garde but for the lack of a beret. Buzz Clifford's Baby Sittin' Boogie flavours its breaks with the perfectly syncopated gurgling of an infant to genuinely peculiar effect, which can surely only have been achieved through mucking about with tapes; and there's the similarly bizarre vocal acrobatics of Joe Perkins' Little Eeefin' Annie knocking Can and all those other supposedly groundbreaking acts no-one actually listens to into a cocked hat. Rarely ranging much beyond doo-wop, rockabilly, country, and maybe a touch of traditional music hall, Looney Tunes is mainstream as hell, and yet manages to be seriously fucking weird for most of the playing time - arguably excepting the aforementioned children's numbers and Charlie Drake as ever trying far too hard on My Boomerang Won't Come Back. Transfusion by Nervous Norvus will save you the bother of ever having to read J.G. Ballard, and there's the distinctly rapey Little Red Riding Hood by Sam the Sham & the Pharoahs to keep power electronics enthusiasts happy; and, in essence, what I mean to tell you is that this album has fucking everything you could ever need from a record. As some dude identifying as DaKreepa on YouTube states, the Looney Tunes album was the best fuckin' thing man has ever made, meaning that we can stop looking, having finally found the eye of the YouTube comments storm where truth finally happened.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Ceramic Hobs - Blackpool Legacy (2018)

It's taken me nearly two fucking decades, but I get it at last. Back in April, 2000 I described Psychiatric Underground - the Ceramic Hobs first album - as being like one of those kid's drawings of a circus where everything happens simultaneously. This was in an issue of Sound Projector, and the best I could do was a diplomatic concession admitting that it's never going to be my favourite album of all time but isn't without a place in the universe; and this was a review of my second copy of the album. I gave the first one away having found it impenetrable, then felt guilty, bought a second one and tried my best to say something nice about it; although to be fair, I gave Psychiatric Underground a spin just the other day, and I still can't really find a way in, even though I now have a better understanding of why it sounds as it does.

Anyway, I kept buying the records, mainly because Straight Outta Rampton - the second album - was fucking great, and I was friends with a few of them, or friends of friends, and I suppose we were all part of the same gang. Both Stan and Simon did guest vocals on some of my own stuff, and I briefly performed live with them at some Mad Pride event; and yet only now, with the release of this - essentially a greatest hits compilation - have I understood what they were doing, and understood that specific element I always found weirdly fascinating and yet difficult to define. Every review I've thus far seen of Blackpool Legacy has praised Philip Best's choice of tracks, it being himself who arranged the selection with the benefit of both a sympathetic ear and an outsider's objectivity; and the praise is justified because this record is a revelation, disentangling the formerly impenetrable from psychotic roots and providing the sort of contrast which allows all to shine. Most of these tracks were familiar, and yet somehow everything sounds better, heavier, tighter, clearer, harder, sharper, faster, funnier, and scarier. Where once I had the feeling of trying to listen to Nurse With Wound and the Cramps at the same time, most of this hits with the terrifying clarity of the first Pistols album.

As the booklet makes quite clear, the Ceramic Hobs could never be mistaken for worthy rainbow-wigged bozos covering They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha Ha; and in case you're still wondering, they were described somewhere or other as the last true punk band and have certain associations with the Mad Pride movement through a number of members being very much on the radar of the psychiatric industry. My favourite comparison has been Idwal Fisher suggesting they make the Butthole Surfers sound like REM, which they do.

Ceramic Hobs are not a scrappy bunch of achievers trying to claw their way up the respectability ladder in society. Not at all. On The Prowler, Simon Morris croons the line drinking every night on the taxpayer's money, and he means it. Rubbing the face of the same people's mindset in our economic useless eater status. Yes, we do get drunk on the taxpayer's money as much as we want. Never work. We'll take and take and take until you admit you want to kill us. We'll bite the hand that feeds.

Anyway, their sound is all over like a mad woman's shit - to once again paraphrase Sir Les Patterson - which, as I now appreciate, has been an invocation of the sensory overload experienced during manic episodes, for any of us who may have been down that road - or the first SPK album with tunes, if you prefer; and this is why you'll commonly hear what almost resembles rock music - a sort of Oi! country & western tinged with rockabilly - buried behind layers of tapes from the telly, interviews with murderers, kid's shows, atrocity mixed with innocence. The problem I had came from my assumption of this being mostly random bursts of psychiatric noise, whereas it's actually finely orchestrated and arranged towards very specific effects, so you need to understand what is going on, which is difficult when even the Hobs themselves aren't always certain.

I've been surprised at how much sense these songs make heard in this context - scary, funny, often haunting, and the sort of stuff which makes a grown man cry. If you've forgotten what music was supposed to do before they got hold of it, Blackpool Legacy serves as a very timely reminder.