Tuesday 26 April 2011

I’m About To Lose Control…..

On the one hand, much of the music of the American New Wave of the late 1970’s was an attempt to infuse rock music with a mythic-poetic quality, a contemporary equivalent to the Symbolism of the 19th Century, in which the artist’s life was lived through their work to the extent that their very being became itself a lived poem, and in turn took on the quality of legend. Even your very name could be the subject of artistic transmutation.

On the other hand, you had The Knack. Formed in Los Angeles in 1978, the band were one of the most fascinating and controversial groups of the late Seventies. Like so much of the cultural output of the era, their work was equally capable of repulsing both conservatives and liberals, with its seemingly relentless fixation with the minutiae of incipient sexual intercourse.

In many ways, The Knack’s songs are some of the most compelling ever recorded, at their best working themselves up into a tumescent lather, as they flip back and forth through the attraction/repulsion dynamic of those first trepidatious fumblings of adolescent sexual discovery. Forever the nerd, singer Doug Fieger’s lyrics stammer like a schizoid masterbatory monologue as he runs through the potential fleshy joys and painful rejections to be encountered as he lasciviously circles his target.

With his toad sweat covered brow, glove-puppet eyes and flaring Kenneth Williams nostrils, Fieger would be unbearable were it not for the fact that The Knack were one of the most compulsive riff-machines of the era. Pinned down by the clinical drumming of Bruce Gary, the band’s timing is immaculate, opening and filling space with some of the tightest, sparest playing conceivable. It’s one of the paradoxes of The Knack that though their whole oeuvre encompassed the subject of frustration and denial, their music was supremely satisfying, its surplus libido tickling the listener with endless stutters and tics. Even their solos are punctually pleasing, being lyrical and expressive, but never lasting a note longer than they should do.

That said, there was always something faintly obscene about The Knack, and America’s moral majority, with its impeccable flair for uncovering the decadent, was soon on the trail. The Knack were literally persecuted. Initially this merely concerned their alleged over-similarity to The Beatles (eh?), but when it began to be noted that the band were considerably older than the teenage girls they lyrically pursued, a full-blown "Knuke The Knack" campaign followed in earnest.

Riven by internal tensions of their own, after two great albums the band recorded the apologetic "Round Trip" in 1981 and disbanded. Inexcusably brilliant, it goes without saying that we shall never see their like again.

Sunday 24 April 2011

The Luck Of The Draw

"The neglect of silent evidence is endemic to the way we study comparative talent, particularly in activities that are plagued with winner-take-all attributes. We may enjoy what we see, but there is no point reading too much into success stories because we do not see the full picture.

The consequence of the superstar dynamic is that what we call "literary heritage" or "literary treasures" is a minute proportion of what has been produced cumulatively. This is the first point. How it invalidates the identification of talent can be derived immediately from it: say you attribute the success of the 19th century novelist Honoré De Balzac to his superior "realism", "insights", "sensitivity", "treatment of characters", "ability to keep the reader riveted", and so on. These may be deemed "superior" qualities that lead to superior perfomance if, and only if, those who lack what we call talent also lack these qualities. But what if there are dozens of comparable literary masterpieces that happened to perish? And, following my logic, if there are indeed many perished manuscripts with similar attributes, then I regret to say, your idol Balzac was just the beneficiary of disproportionate luck compared to his peers. Furthermore, you may be committing an injustice to others by favouring him."

Nassim Nicholas Taleb - "The Black Swan"

Wednesday 20 April 2011

Mind Over Matter

Here's something else that you could find in the Seventies that is forbidden nowadays: an open minded documentary on the paranormal and its relationship to mainstream science, featuring respected scientists, and broadcast during peak time.

Nowadays this kind of subject matter is basically forbidden on the tamely materialist BBC. The likes of Channel 4 will occasionally investigate it, but only to pooh-pooh it with a familiar array of sceptics.

And so what appeared at the time to be a new frontier of knowledge has effectively been closed off, and we're stuck with materialism whether it offers any answers or not.

Not that this matters in the long run, as one of the major casualties of the perilous economic decline of the Western world will be scientific progress itself. What we don't know now, we will never know, as the capital to hollow out more and more Swiss mountains to chase ever more elusive phantom particles simply won't be available.

Sunday 17 April 2011

Je Suis Le Grande Zombie

A riot is the language of the unheard.
- Martin Luther King

Must be the devil must be the devil mus is mus is mus is
mus is be the devil, 
cain be Rockefeller

 caint be him, no lawd
aint be Dupont, no lawd, cain be, no lawd
Amiri Baraka 'Dope'

Top Ten Lessons For Surviving a Zombie Attack
1. Organize before they rise!

Max Brooks Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection From The Living Dead


I always thought of the zombies as being about revolution, one generation consuming the next.
- George A. Romero

Saturday 16 April 2011

It's A Man's Man's World

Author, agitator, fugitive....and fashion designer. Eldridge Cleaver's engagement with the fashion houses of Paris in the mid-70's was short but spectacular. No doubt there was some polemical underpinning to this radical innovation in menswear, but it couldn't be anything but eclipsed by their visual impact.

Friday 15 April 2011

Futilist's Lament

High Tide were not only one of the most remarkable bands of their era, but of any era. One of the many groups that chronicled the come-down from the Summer Of Love, they were the doomed-est of the doomed, the damnedest of the damned.

Combining the Breugel-esque, churning riffage of Black Sabbath with the cosmic sense of loss of The Doors, their debut album "Sea Shanties" saw them setting sail from the war-torn, napalm-drenched shores of the 20th century on a course to the edge of the world, the rotten timbers of their ship infested with rats, scurvy and syphilis.

Although at the very forefront of the musical innovations of the late-60's and early 70's, their music conjures up a hauntingly ancient sense of melancholy - one thinks of the fishermen's widows, the terrified, press-ganged sailors and the abandoned hulks littering the shores of Olde Englande.

There's no place crueller than the cold, grey sea.


"sounds like a jolly Syd full o' Marmite" (Federica Pagani)

Tuesday 12 April 2011

Seeing It Coming

In the punk-ten-years-before-its-time department, there were few bands more fearsome than The Wimple Winch.

However, it's this winsome b-side that anticipates the decade-to-come the best:

Sunday 10 April 2011

The Audience Comes First

"As an experiment in social history, it would be worth compiling a video of the 'Top of the Pops' audiences of that period, containing no shots of the bands. Here, in the nervous jigging-about of puppy fat, bum fluff, and denim waistcoats, you will see Ziggy's children, awkwardly trying to come to terms with a pop spirit that must have seemed audacious to the point of unbelievable."
- Michael Bracewell, When Surface Was Depth

"Here was a group who looked as though they came from not only another era -- the 1950s as they might be reconstructed in the twenty-first century -- but also from another planet. ... Brian Eno, had claimed with straight-faced passivity that he was a visitor from the planet Xenon. But having a bona fide alien in the band seemed almost less outrageous than the unholy barrage of nerve-jarring electronics squeals and furiously accelerated piano chords that the group were pumping out. [...]

And then there was Bryan Ferry's extraordinary vocal style, in which breathless staccato phrasing gave way to something between a fox's bark and the leering self-preening of a high-camp crooner in the throes of amphetamine psychosis. But by the time that he had reached the pivotal break in the song -- 'We are flying down to Ree-Ohh' -- the bewildered [TOTP] studio audience of youthfully plump young people had ceased their customary expressionless jigging up and down, and were trying to work out just what manner of adult pop freakishness had crash-landed into their hitherto teenage world of Marc Bolan's glam pout and Donny Osmond's puppy love.

'If Roxy Music had been like cooking,' says Andy MacKay,...'It would be like the dish in Marinetti's Futurist cookbook called Car Crash: an hemisphere of puréed dates and an hemisphere of puréed anchovies, which are then stuck together in a ball and served in a pool of raspberry juice. I mean -- it's virtually inedible, but it can be done.'"
- Ibid.
* * * * * * * * * * *

A few random thoughts about the above...

  1. As far as that first bit is concerned, it's a great idea. But if anyone's ever compiled such a thing, I've yet to come across it. So this one'll have to do as a substitute.
  2. Hailing from the Stateside shores of the big water, there's a lot about the U.K. mediascape that I can't quite get my head around. Case in point: The institutional or integral importance that shows like TOTP or The Old Grey Whistle Test might (or might not have) had once upon a time. In the 1970s, there wasn't anything in the U.S. that served as any sort of equivalent. Sure, there were roughly similar things like American Bandstand and Soul Train and Don Kirshner's Rock Concert; which featured artists in varying degrees, but they were usually shuffled into odd and marginal time-slots. As far as primetime was concerned, it was mostly variety shows -- meaning that a guest slot by someone like The Bay City Rollers, Rod Stewart, or the Bee Gees was about as riotous as it was likely to get.
  3. As far as the second item is concerned: Yes, I guess there is no accounting for -- this many years after the fact -- just how strange and confusing this must've seemed in its original in situ context. Quite frankly, it took me a while (years, in fact) to process the early Roxy material -- to fully absorb and appreciate it for all its baffling incongruencies and eclecticism.
  4. And yes, Roxy's influence on later artists was immense and widely acknowledged; although it often seems like said influence was usually drawn from the most cosmetic elements of the group's music and image. But as far as "Virginia Plain" is concerned, I've always felt that it served as the one-shot stylistic template for the bulk of these guys' output. Remake/remodel, indeed.

Saturday 9 April 2011

Look Good in Ruins (or: Twenty-five Tangents about Bowie in "Berlin")


By all accounts, he had to get away from L.A. That much is a matter of undisputed public record. Some claim it was little more than a tax dodge, but others argue it was Bowie's attempt at breaking the maeslstrom of drugs and increasing psychosis that was consuming his life -- the obsession with Aleister Crowley, the traffic, escalating paranoia, the $500-per-diem cocaine habit supplemented by a diet of milk and peppers. Or maybe it was all of the above. But it had to start with leaving, getting out and getting away, extricating oneself from certain endangering circles, breaking with destructive habits and everything that fuels or enables them, and hopefully changing course and salvaging what's left of one's creative energies before it's too late. First to Switzerland, then -- eventually -- to Berlin. Leaving Los Angeles and all of its snares and poisonous associations behind. To hell with it all. Looking back, he would later say of Los Angeles, "The fucking place should be wiped off the face of the planet."

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


No big surprise, really, that Bowie would inevitably wind up in Berlin. He'd been enthralled with Germany for some time -- fascinated, as some recent recorded comments and reputed gestures suggested, to a worrisome or problematic degree. He was deeply taken with its art and its music, with the decadent cabaret culture of the Weimar era, and -- more alarmingly -- with a certain sordid chapter of its 20th-century history.

But mainly it seemed like a good place to go to detox and collect one's wits. Bleak, depressed, somewhat coldly (and dingily) modern, furtively wrestling with its own history in the most repressed of ways, physically divided, socially and politically adrift in the throes of its Cold War limbo. That was the impression of the place as it existed at the time, anyway – the picture that the word "Berlin" commonly painted in a person's mind. A "come-down" city if ever there was one. You wander down a given city street, only to come to its sudden and abrupt end, the point of stoppage at which you find yourself facing the Wall. Some histories aren't so easily left behind, some histories leave harsh reminders.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


It was Christopher Isherwood who put the idea of moving to Berlin into Bowie's head. Bowie had long been a fan of Isherwood, whose Goodbye to Berlin had undergone a recent revival in popularity from loosely providing the inspiration for the musical Cabaret. Attending the Los Angeles stop of the Station to Station tour in 1976, Isherwood and artist David Hockney had made their way backstage to converse with the singer afterward. The topic of Berlin came up. Isherwood would later claim that he tried to disabuse Bowie of the notion of going there, going so far as to dismiss the city as "boring." No matter, as it prompted Bowie to decide that a lack of distractions and some anonymity were what he needed to clear his head, and it wasn't much later that he started packing his bags.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


Bowie wasn't the only one fascinated by Berlin in the 1970s. Far from it. A quick survey of the American cultural landscape revealed that a certain number of people in the U.S. shared a similar interest. Lou Reed's Berlin LP might've played some small part in the matter, with the way it sketched its setting in the gloomiest and starkest of tones. And there was also the popularity of the Broadway and film productions of Cabaret. Plus, the novels of Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass sold modestly well, with the films of Herzog and Wertmüller and Fassbinder and Wenders drawing crowds at the cinema in New York and reviews from urbane film critics.

As far as how the idea of Berlin was conceived and held in the American public imagination -- it represented something, must've served as some kind of metaphor. But a metaphor for what? Nobody ever said precisely, and perhaps nobody actually knew. Something having to do with trauma and unthinkable sins, with atonement and the weight of history, about rebuilding from the wreckage without looking back, of not being able to speak of the past, of living in a historical limbo. And about modernity. Because Berlin seemed deeply modern, but in a way that was as hard-won and enburdened as any form of modernity could be.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Gypsy Rover

Obviously I should already have written about the vast edifice of awesomeness that was The Faces, but unfortunately Warner Bros. have embargoed all their best stuff.

Nevertheless here's a clip of the great Ronnie Lane from 1976. Am I alone in suspecting that this performance was viewed and noted by a young Mr. K. Rowland?

And blow me, is that not future-Dexy Steve Brennan playing the violin up there?

Friday 8 April 2011

An Endless Almanac Of Terrifying Wounds

I grew up along a main road, among concrete monstrosities that once appeared pregnant with mystery and possibility (but in retrospect were bloody tragedies). Like many others living near a city centre, I witnessed my fair share of motor accidents, both minor and horrific. Even now, cars bring to mind the stench of eye-watering emissions, small animal carcasses and ominous smears of blood along the kerb: brands of unearned power over nature and the fragile pedestrian (another vulnerable constituency neglected by neoliberalism). Every triumphant roar replaced by a new one, as traffic proceeded on its predatory journey, oblivious to it's own final destination. As a virginal teenager, it was perhaps unsurprising that J.G. Ballard's Crash would strike such a nerve. A pornographic, but highly unerotic, novel centered around the allures and traumas of motoring held a perverse glamour. To this confused adolescent, the popular obsession with the motorcar was as mysterious and ominous as sex itself. The destructive - or of course liberating - potential of both leads western societies to mystify them with layers of distorted exchange value; not least with their taunting promises of plentitude. Our lonely, Faustian trade between alienated desire, the consumer spectacle and the infernal machines of capitalism are even more starkly apparent in this century of fractured communities, economic pillage, and wars of peak oil denial.

Although often regarded as a cold, clinical author, I'd argue that Ballard is anything but. The supposed 'blankness 'of his prose opens up caverns of unspoken yearning and a need for human connection. A widower for most of his adult life, there's a recurring sense of loss to his stories. His extended autopsies on "the death of affect" are thinly-veiled acts of mourning, made explicit in later autobiographical works. Crash is a typical example of his characters compensating with flights of creative hubris, according to technology and its audiovisual sermons (or 'the media landscape'). His innerspace visionaries and 'hoodlum priests' invariably fall to earth with burnt wings, his survivors remaining as seduced observers. Not so much scarred by their (sexually ambiguous) love triangles, as by the environments within which this desire operates. Ending on notes of muted sadness and resignation, the Spectacle remains as impregnable and distant as the intimate, but alien, landscapes that negotiate the desires of his characters. For all of Vaughn's grand claims, he climaxes as an anonymous victim to the Elizabeth Taylor of his fantasies. The pornographic imaginary ultimately answers to the faceless technology that generated it (a motif of Ballard's beloved surrealists). For stories set in the present, this entropy is largely private, internal. If technology dictates the inner world, then humanity as whole is dwarfed by unpredictable nature. Explicitly so in his 'disaster cycle', and other futuristic stories where it overwhelms the grandest of human designs. For Ballard, the future is haunted by the imaginative consolations to be found within departures. Emotion is replaced by theory, a coping strategy in denial of the remorseful, vulnerable mechanics of being human. A resource with which to steer around trauma:

The above film was directed by Harley Cokliss, a name suggestive of some pornographic car part. Older readers may also recognise Gabrielle Drake, Crossroads heroine and sister of Nick. This was actually broadcast before publication of Crash the 1973 novel, inspired by the Atrocity Exhibition passage that preceeded it. Unlike many 'name' novelists, Ballard actually talks like he writes. Always a comfortable and engaging television presence, he aquits himself well in this 'adaptation'. It's also a relic of the days when pulp, public television and the avant-garde would cross paths for a general audience. It has an atmosphere of reverence and horror for the urban environment, an approach common to early 70s British culture. Later, and in tune with the rise of Thatcherism, this became supplanted by revulsion at the population as well as the design of urban Britain. The New Right ethos paradoxically promoted the car as a means to belong in a society that was "no such thing"; with Thatcher famously dismissing public transport passengers as 'losers'. In line with this paradox, 80s advertising tended to promote the car as protective rather than free; concealing its sexual appeal within promises to prevent against mingling. Somewhere along this intersection lay Crash's status as the cult novel for post-punk subcultures, appropriate to their consumerist ambivalence and morbid sexual mores. 


For a writer of supposedly 'narrow' concerns, Ballard is someone I return to far more than other teenage favourites (you can guess the usual suspects - I am a cliche). Despite reoccuring obsessions, his passive dialogue opens more room for speculation on the part of the reader than, say, Burroughs (infected as he is with a distinctly macho insistence on writerly authority). Indeed, Ballard's obsessions are feasible basis for an always interesting blog. Perhaps time will embed his more trans-literary qualities. As with Don Quixote, Gulliver's Travels, Peter Pan, Frankenstein, The Trial, 1984, Waiting For Godot etc. his stories could acquire the texture of fable, where the strength of concept can outweigh literary merit. It's somewhat surprising how rare film adaptations of Ballard's work have been. Compared to his Burroughs misfire (or anything starring Jeremy Irons), David Cronenberg's Crash has aged surprisingly well. It captures that removed sense of emotional desperation so common to Ballard. However, its location neglects a central underlying theme: how the British middle-class are, well... fucking weird. Perhaps compelled by the post-war welfare consensus (and experience of total war), enough of its cultural producers were once aware of this; unafraid to document it from a variety of angles. Nowadays, they appear too preoccupied with celebrity evisceration, narcissistic self-surveilance and fetishised motorist entitlements to notice anymore.

Thursday 7 April 2011


Humble Pie were the stinkiest, skeeziest band of their era. Unlike peers such as Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Free, they had no ambitions toward spiritual uplift or magical enlightenment. Nor did they attempt to add symphonic grandeur or modernist edge to their sound. It was as though they had taken the most disreputable themes of the Rolling Stones as a base to build on, or, rather, tunnel down from. Lyrically they offered no expansive vistas, no deserts or mountains or streams, and no visions of progress or redemption. Humble Pie were an indoors band, and indoors meant either the bar or the coke den or the brothel.

What they did have was a killer groove, and a thick, soupy sound that unrolled like the smoky fug in a late-night bar. Even George Clinton would have needed to wear a gas mask when wading through the acrid hum of songs like "One-eyed Trouser Snake Rumba" or "Wrist Job". But like all truly great bands, they have that knack of convincing you, while you’re listening to them, that they’re the greatest band in the world. The best rock music is about a certain kind of precision-timed looseness, and in this respect, Humble Pie had found the Holy Grail. Their riffing ranged around the beat as though tied to it with elastic, giving their music a kind of immaculate swagger, a gold-toothed loucheness.

The band were formed in 1968 by the former Small Faces singer Steve Marriott, along with Herd guitarist Peter Frampton. The Gollum-esque Marriott was a notoriously bi-polar character. Known to friends and colleagues as a particularly generous and spontaneous individual with an impish sense of humour, in private he was consumed with doubt and envy of those he considered were unfairly more successful than him. Marriott even gave a name, "Melvin", to this grouchy, unattractive side to his personality, and his entire career was a battle between "Steve" and "Melvin" to see which one would eventually come out on top. It was this internal battle that no doubt gave his live performances their explosive intensity - in my opinion he was the most exciting front man of them all.

If The Small Faces are remembered for their moddish neatness and their insertion of a particularly English sensibility into psychedelia, then Humble Pie were the absolute opposite, a filthy immersion in Americana, and this is why so few admirers of the former band have any interest in the latter. Humble Pie began as a kind of super group, hoping to take the commercial success of The Small Faces onto the world stage, but after their first record company, Immediate, folded, they were picked up by American management and an American record company, and became, with their self-titled third album, a de facto American band. Based in the US, and with all their efforts made to crack that market, their manager Dee Anthony did whatever he could to limit their return to British soil in case it prompted them to become homesick.

It was also Anthony who encouraged them towards a funky, hard-rocking sound, and it was this coarsening that prompted the departure of Frampton in 1971, and his replacement by Clem Clempson, whose playing dovetailed perfectly with the palpitating rhythms of Greg Ridley and Jerry Shirley. By 1973’s "Eat It", the band had even picked up their own backing group, the Blackberries, made up of former Ikettes Venetta Fields, Clydie King and Sherlie Matthews, allowing them to plunge even deeper into the Southern Soul sound that had been their initial inspiration.

Humble Pie were a band who eventually died of exhaustion. By 1974, they had toured the USA non-stop for four years, and returned to Britain to find themselves not only physically shattered, but also penniless, their earnings eroded not only by their own indulgences, but by the familiar record company and management racketeering. After the band fell apart, the impulsive Marriott became suspicious of success, and the remainder of his career was spent in half-hearted attempts to rekindle former glories while consuming hefty amounts of drugs and alcohol and evading the taxman, who was still chasing him over royalties earned more than a decade before. Marriott was to die in a house fire in 1991, caused by him falling asleep in bed with a lit cigarette. His blood sample was found to contain traces of valium, alcohol and cocaine. A deeply tragic, though not entirely surprising end.

Monday 4 April 2011

Economics 101

One of the most curious notions entertained nowadays about the music of James Brown is that somehow the direction it took in the 1970's into an increasingly spartan, etiolated, minimalist groove was somehow a quirk of the Godfather Of Soul's character - that it was a reflection of Brown's obsessive, puritanical personality, and offered no reflection on the world around it. For the Rare Groove aficionados of the 1990's who excavated deep and wide into his back catalogue, the archaeological process was enacted to salvage all those deliciously funky tics and riffs so they could be recycled any number of times in an increasingly diverse array of subcultural styles. What Brown actually had to say on those records was deemed irrelevant, or, at best, nothing more than a worthy series of exhortations to stay clean and do something useful.

Which is weird, because Brown was probably the most forensically meticulous documenter of the economic mores of his time, and his music was nothing other than the sound of relentless, concerted economic pressure. Brown famously ran his career like a corporation, and for all the opportunities this gave him for petty tyranny, it also informed him how the system worked. His music could only sound the way it did, because Brown realised that for African-Americans, there was no way out; the only realistic strategy of coping was the stoical maintenance of self-respect, an endless, boundless struggle to maintain your equilibrium against the bewilderingly pernicious social and economic forces that were ranged against you.

The JB's sound was nothing more than the sound of stagflation - the aural manifestation of an economy entering the vicious circle of its own demise.