Friday, November 16, 2012


THE BIRTHDAY PARTY
A Manhattan Melodrama starring The Birthday Party

NME,1981.10.17.

by Barney Hoskyn s

It’s a chill, exposed night in New York City. The East Coast has only just recovered from a week of torrential rains, and winds sweeping up the island’s avenue from Battery Park to Harlem threaten more.

But the show must go on, and at a swanky rock disco in Union Square it’s only just beginning. Strutting their stuff to English imports like Duran Duran’s ‘Planet Earth’ and Way of the West’s ‘Don’t Say That’s Just For White Boys’ are second division preppies and neatly-pressed executives from New Jersey. They are trying to get their dates drunk.

The night is flowing by pretty amorphously when suddenly, at one o’clock, the lights on the Underground’s floor scatter back to their source and the sound dies. Everyone looks round, seeking the cause of this unwelcome interruption. Instantly their faces drop in disbelief, for onto the stage are climbing five... five... but words just give way to alarmed grimaces. Let’s just say five very undesirable aliens.

One, festooned in split-crotch gold lamé drainpipes, his bruised, labial features twitching through black flames of hair, appears to be the singer. Another, busy strapping on a bass guitar like a giant dildo, sports a fishnet vest, a Stetson, and the sort of moustache you might cultivate if you were shaping up to hustle some meat on gay Christopher Street. Perhaps most disturbing of all, a kind of gangling, psychotic hillbilly, squeezed into a ridiculous suit out of some garment district garbage can, is fastening on a guitar like he was about to run through a rehearsal for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Hyperboles aside, it’s not quite what the management was expecting. Hell, they haven’t even played a note and already half the crowd is filing out. A single drumbeat portends ill, and next moment all the worst premonitions are justified. Cranking out of the guitar amps comes this murderous death-rattle, like the gaze of Medusa freezing in their steps the few foolhardy adventurers who dare to look. The bass, lurching obscenely into the foray, scrapes and shunts in subterranean seizures. St. Vitus’ Dance here we come!

Finally, his body doubling up in unholy convulsions, the macilent wreck of a singer starts to spit and fume: "AMERICAN HEADS WILL ROLL IN TEXAS!! AMERICAN HEADS WILL ROLL!!!" Hmmmm... like, what is this? Some of the observers turn away in nervous laughter, others comb their scattered brains to remember where Pigbag – polite, groovy little Pigbag – are playing. The rest suck on straws and pray it’s over soon. "I mean, shit, the Sex Pistols were one thing... "

When the song ends, however, an ugly pause ensues. Something’s wrong with the guitar. Suddenly, there’s this ashen-faced nut behind the keyboard shouting into his mic, very slowly, again and again and again: "WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH YOU BASTARDS? WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH YOU?" It’s a party-trick which fails to amuse the management. After the second song, ‘Zoo-Music Girl’, someone’s climbing on the stage and telling the band their time is up. Scarcely acknowledging him, they thunder into one last, most outrageous exhibition of carnal mayhem and then disappear.
This little scenario is roughly what the Australian group The Birthday Party call "a really great gig". I mean, how degenerate can you get?

WHEN YA WALK OUT HERE
WHEN YA WALK OUT
I GOTTA FILL UP THAT SPACE
OR FILL UP THAT NO-SPACE
(The Birthday Party, ‘Cry’)
*
"There is no empty space in nature which we do not believe that, at one time or another, the human mind can fill."
– Antonin Artaud, ‘On The Alfred Jarry Theatre’

IN THIS APOLLONIAN climate of cold design and concealed despair, The Birthday Party take the concept of stage performance about as far as you are likely to see it go. Live, the songs of singer Nick Cave and guitarist Rowland Howard are driven to an emotional edge where pain and pleasure fuse – in cathartic madness for the performer and dithyrambic joy for the audience. Their concerts are feasts of energy, chaotic spectacles which break the surface of art and carry sound and lyric to ultimate violence. If Captain Beefheart or Pere Ubu seem too quirkily surreal, The Birthday Party in performance burst through the constrictions of intellect to a "raw power," that original sin which Iggy Stooge so rightly perceived as "laughing at you and me... "

"A man who believes is peculiar. BUT SINCE SOME ARE BORN PLAYACTORS... "

The Birthday Party do not suffer from delusions of grandeur.

"I mean, fuck it," says Nick Cave, "what we’re trying to do is the biggest musical cliché in the world. It’s just that some people forget the cliché. Can you imagine Echo And The Bunnymen trying to let themselves go?"

He sprawls across the bar, trying to find his drink.

"I think it’s really important to rely on clichés – like Suicide did. Not that it sounds like a cliché. As a matter of fact I think ‘King Ink’ is one of the best songs ever written. That song can become so intense it puts me on another planet, though I don’t think the recorded version is at all good."

"Prayers On Fire stinks, quite honestly," announces Tracy Pew, the group’s super-macho bassist. "The engineer slept through the entire session for a start. But then even 'Release the Bats' isn't as good as it could be."

"It's just too conventional at the moment," resumes Cave. "The record, as a cultural event, is a very limited concept. With the cover and everything, it can be much more than just the music."

The Birthday Party come to shake us out of our inhibitions. They militate against the sedative boundaries of Pop.

Cave: "There’s a real need for an intelligent but aggressive group in London. All the treasured groups are just so softcore. At one time there was a real upsurge of new young groups and incredible records like ‘She is Beyond Good And Evil’... you know, The Pop Group before they sacrificed the music for that soapbox, toilet-roll politics. The groups that came out of The Pop Group have got back to primitive funk, which is good... I saw Rip Rig and Panic at Action Space and there was a real directness and irreverence, as opposed to Pigbag, who are just happy to be convincingly funky."

What about their own bacchanalian night at Action Space?

Pew: "The last two gigs in London have been the best yet. Before that the audiences were like a little bunch of eggs with faces. They lost control when they were told to, like Pavlovian dogs taking a leak."

Cave: "Compared to the gigs in Australia, especially in Sydney, they’re nothing. You remember when that girl was slicing me up with a key, Tracy? In Australia, you really feel you’re turning decent people into monsters. But look, we’re not setting ourselves up as some kind of demonic force, it’s just that things are generally more successful when they become blind and unconscious, when you feel anything could happen."

Pew: "In England that doesn’t happen very often, because you media people have turned kids into robots, little UB40s... "

So what’s kept you from the threshold of madness?

Cave: " Funhouse, the two Suicide albums (also the new live cassette)... Slates by The Fall. The Fall are a great group. Slates is one of the best things I’ve ever heard. It has a violence and humour which if offputting to sheep."

Is a popular music culture an important thing?

Cave: "When the history of rock music is written – which, since it’s practically dead, will be soon – it’ll just be remembered as a sordid interruption of normality."

Pew: "Rock will be remembered as the anus of culture. Not Del Shannon but Iggy Pop."

Cave: "The last two years in London will be swept under the rug. This I can tell you: THE LONG FRINGES WILL NOT BE REMEMBERED. The point is that the creative process is not some fucking craft. WE’RE A LIVING MUSICAL CLICHÉ."

*

"Who would care to contribute to a culture that cannot be satisfied no matter how much it devours, and at whose contact the most vigorous and wholesome nourishment is changed into ‘history and criticism’?"
(Nietzsche)

"I just don’t wanna go, out in the streets... these people give me the creeps... "
(The Bush Tetras)

NEW YORK SUFFERS terribly from its reputation and consequent sense of duty. It has convinced its spoilt children in their chic little headbands and PX offcuts that the entire point of their lives lies in snorting excessive amounts of cocaine, staying up till 8 in the morning imbibing nauseous, overpriced cocktails, and taking non-stop taxis from one club to the next. All, of course, in the name of Fun and Style. But it doesn’t feel like fun, it feels like a routine.

That The Birthday Party have been the most exciting live act in London for some six months cannot seriously be doubted by anyone who’s seen them. In New York this excitement was seen simply as transgression — in the case of the band's Ritz show, incitement of the audience to a "PiL-style riot."

According to Cave, however, the Ritz was "a really boring, conservative gig." True, at several junctures he climbed into the pit of zombies below him, but it was quite obvious that to provoke a riot he’d have had to set fire to them. Three quarters of the way through the set, the lights came up, the disco came on, and The Birthday Party were quietly and efficiently shoved off the stage.

This sort of treatment, which might have left anyone else permanently embittered, only seemed to strengthen the group’s immediate taste for America.

"If our natural path is disaster," groaned Mick Harvey stoically, "then so be it."

Drunk on culture schlock, roaming the streets and sleeping with TV eyes on, the "boys from down under" (as they were so tastefully described in the city’s music listings) swallowed the pill and survived the comedown.

"What would you rather be in," demands Rowland Howard, "Dolly Parton’s backing band or – an English new wave group?"

The others hear the answer within the question: it doesn’t brook reply. "Yep!" bawls Tracy Pew, carefully adjusting the angle of a new Stetson and ignoring the question, "the gig at the Underground was one of my all-time favourite gigs".

*

"I don’t live this life for me, in Orstralia Land so free... "
(The Sails,’Orstralia’)

"Oh Yer! Oh Yer! What A Wonderful Life, Fats Domino On The Radio..."
(‘King Ink’)

AT THE ROOT of Australia’s open rock revolt, its avowed overthrow of Western chic and transatlantic pussyfooting lies a) the experience of pure boredom down under, and b) one all-important testament: Funhouse by the Stooges. Long deleted in this country, practically unheard of by Britain’s post-punk youth – kids who will swear by crap like Lust For Life and New Values – this apocalypse of Middle America, with its unrepeatable anthems ‘Down In The Street’, ‘Loose' (of which The Birthday Party do a version). ‘TV Eye', and ‘1970’ (from which Radio Birdman took their name), is very simply one of the greatest rock‘n’roll records ever made. The Saints knew this when they recorded two of the other "greatest rock'n'roll records ever made", (I'm) Stranded and Eternally Yours. And lead Birdman Deniz Tek, who was born in Detroit and brought the word of Ig to his predestined true believers, the forgotten street rebels of Australia, knew it before anyone.

Despite the extraordinary contempt and derision Birdman have since suffered, it was the group’s first tour of Australia which set off the few real triggers of discontent that awaited such a call to arms. The Birthday party, whatever they may say to the contrary, bear the memory of seeing Birdman for the first time as powerfully as anyone. As a rather average five-piece combo called The Boys Next Door, all of whom, excepting Rowland Howard, had been playing together since third form in high school, their conception of music was radically changed by the experience.

Within a year they had effectively established themselves at the center of Melbourne’s "alternative" music scene.

"It took us about three years," says Cave, "to get a group of about 50 people together and for them to convince another 300 or so that it was all worthwhile."

"Yeah," snarls Pew, "all those fuckwits who used to throw glasses at us..."

"Actually," whispers Rowland Howard in another time and place, "we were regarded as a bit of a bloody joke."

1979: one strangely pop-punk LP as The Boys Next Door, called Door, Door. Great cover, great lyrics, but songs and sounds like any Anglo-American powerpop band. A spite marriage of the Ramones and XTC.

Cave: "We went through a year in Australia of playing the most disgusting kind of shit. Like Door, Door."

Pew: "We became a bunch of snivelling little poofs."

Cave: "I used to wear frilly shirts and pigtails before any of this English shit. We committed the unpardonable error of playing to the thinkers rather than the drinkers."

Between Door, Door on Mushroom Records and The Birthday Party on Missing Link there is a gulf as wide as that between, say, The Knack's 'My Sharona' and Beefheart's 'When Big Joan Sets Up'. So what happened?

Howard stares into his drink for an answer. "I guess this is hard to believe, but it was really just a case of natural progression."

Like there's a "natural progression" from the state of a person's mind before he drops acid to the trip itself. Tell us another.

"It's the honest truth," he protests. "Things just got a little... wilder, that's all."

That's obvious. The Birthday Party, recorded back home and released at the beginning of 1980, is unobtainable in this country at present but features the singles 'Mr. Clarinet/Happy Birthday' (just re-released on 4AD) and 'The Friend Catcher', two of last year's most invigorating and disturbing single releases, plus the extraordinary 'Hair Shirt’ and a manic version of Gene Vincent’s 'Cat Man’." If you see it, you know what to do.

It’s on this album that perennial influences such as the Stooges and Beefheart and more recent ones like Pere Ubu and the Pop Group begin to coalesce in Cave’s and Howard’s songwriting. The result is unique and unmissable.

By this time, the group had been so inspired by the weird sounds imported from possible goldmines abroad they decided it was time to leave. Their sights naturally settled on England.

Both find this idea hilarious. I venture to ask how they feel about England after having lived in London for nearly two years. Cave clears his throat with an evil grin.

"Coming to London has been one of the most disillusioning experiences of my life, partly for a lot of obvious reasons, like everything closing down at eleven o’clock, but more important, because when we came here we thought here at least people were doing more than standing around twanging their guitars. I was really shocked. When we arrived, we saw this package show at the Lyceum, with Echo And The Bunnymen, A Certain Ratio, Teardrop Explodes and so forth and... well, I’ve never been able to take English music seriously since. It was horrible."

*

THE BIRTHDAY PARTY arrived in England just as the last, perhaps most intense vestiges of punk energy were burning themselves out. When the Pop Group split, the whole thing – the anger, the revolt, the sensuality – went into a coma. Perhaps most unfortunate, the influence of brilliant groups like Joy Division and brilliant individuals like Daniel Miller was partly responsible. They inadvertently changed countless bands and musicians who were incapable of absorbing and using that influence to any effect. The Birthday Party, in a dismay, had to watch this almost inevitable breakdown unfold.

By 1979, a new but fatally unclear concept of "Pop" had taken hold of the nation’s alternative music scene. Today this meta-pop has become the actual state of pop, an ideal for some, a living death for others.

Certainly there’s no reason why inoffensive music as produced by electronic groups like Depeche Mode and Soft Cell shouldn’t co-exist with an aggressive alternative to chart music. But what the Spandau hype has done is to brainwash people into formulating a nouveau-glam capitalist ethic which, to put it bluntly, stinks. The music, cushioned in a kind of feebly opulent production, is the pure expression of this ethic, an ethic of adaptation to an environment that ensconces one in plasticine beauty and soft, smooth luxury – the environment of nightclubs, fashion shows, and videos.

Of course there will, and must always be, fluctuations in the state of musical angst. It’s not something that can be topped up when depleted. But why does England have this hangup about real musical violence – that is, a music that is neither Saxon nor the UK Subs, that has soul and dirt and physical desire?

In the end, one can only conclude that it has something to do with the stranglehold the music press has on youth’s cool minority. After all, look what happens to a band when it refuses to co-operate. Look what happened to the Saints when, like a circus animal refusing to play dead, they wouldn’t play "punk".

Fortunately for The Birthday Party, they’ve taken the heritage of the Saints into another dimension, and won the kind of critical approval whose terms simply don’t apply to the likes of Spandau Ballet. 'Release The Bats’, a "voodoo rockabilly" anthem which knocks the Cramps into the shadows of complete insignificance, saw three weeks at the top of the alternative singles chart. Prayers On Fire has been in the indie LP charts ever since its release. And attendance at London gigs has been growing all the time.

After the year of "Pop", 1980 – a miserable year spent trying to fit in with the new nonchalance – The Birthday Party realised the only solution was... TO ATTACK.

*

"MY BODY IS A MONSTER DRIVEN INSANE, MY HEART IS A FISH TOASTED BY FLAMES."
(‘Zoo-Music Girl’)

A CONCERT BY the Birthday Party – Nicholas Cave (vocals), Rowland Howard (guitar), Mick Harvey (guitar, keyboards), Tracy Pew (bass) and Phil Calvert (drums) – can break and dissolve the semantic frame which supports this language. In it you can forget for maybe an hour all the other names and categories that flood forward in the name of Pop to imprison your emotions.

Have we not all secretly yearned, since the deaths of those beings whose bodies, while they could not contain their own desires, diffracted and melted ours in the passing heat of their majesty – the bodies and voices of Hendrix, Joplin, Curtis – for that pure incandescence of being wherein we might at last yield up the barricades of knowledge?

What we must lose now is this insidious, corrosive knowingness, this need to collect and contain. We must use our brains that have been stopped and plugged with random information, and once again must our limbs carve in air the patterns of their desire – not the calibrated measures and slick syncopation of jazz-funk but a carnal music of total release. WE MUST MAKE OF JOY ONCE MORE A CRIME AGAINST THE STATE!

Is it possible for the tirelessly rational system which is "popular" music ever to GO BACK ON ITS WORDS? Or has this music become so cogniscant and inter-referential that all desire for escape and release has been extinguished? Will we never be "lost in music"?

These questions must be asked. For if music is no more than cultural reference-point, THEN IT IS NOTHING.

From the spirit of this tragedy must come the birth of a new music – a music whose warning signals have already been received: ‘Transmission ‘, Radio Birdman’s ‘194’, the Saints’ ‘Night In Venice’, and The Birthday Party's ‘King Ink.

Of course we may continue to display ironical love for such advanced cultural artefacts as Prince, the B-52’s, Michael Jackson, Disco, The Rolling Stones (the playing on ‘Start Me Up’ is among the year’s great performances), or even such kitsch diamonds of MOR dance production as Dollar’s ‘Hand Held In Black And White’.

Naturally we shall not forget the Drifters, Astral Weeks, Etta James, Phil Spector, ‘Liar Liar’ by the Castaways, ‘Jeepster’, and all real SOUL music... nor shall we allow history to bury the names of Alex Chilton and Arthur Lee...

In fact, we shall try to remember as much great music as it is possible to do.

But what we will banish from memory is the whole heap of trash that is held in power by fools and phonies: REO Speedwagon, Bruce Springsteen, Lionel Ritchie, Fleetwood Mac, Paul McCartney, Debbie Harry and, worse still for the sycophantic love bestowed on them, Spandau Ballet, A Certain Ratio, Linx, August Darnell, The Teardrop Explodes...

"Oh wretched ephemeral race, children of chance and misery, why do you compel me to tell you what it would be most expedient for you not to hear? What is best of all is utterly beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you is... "

I cannot finish the quotation. You must excuse this torrid rhetoric – angry, confused and above all, perhaps, misplaced – as the only possible substitute for the bitter silence of my tears. As this last sentence commences, a voice breaks in all the pain of its suppressed longing...
Sung in the words of ‘A Dead Song’:

HIT IT! WITH WORDS LIKE
THOU SHALL NOT
THE END.



Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Friday, August 31, 2012

GO WEST

Melody Maker

by David Stubbs


THE LAST thing I want to do, of course, is say they're wretched.

That would be too easy. Go West are an easy target. They are significant and reviled, as the first perennial chart band of the Eighties to drop from nowhere into the charts. Prior to Go West, the vigorous chart-gloss was made up of the likes of The Thompson Twins, Heaven 17, Spandau, Wham!, bands that, at one point, had in some way or another, paid their dues, played the toilets, run themselves by "us". Even Duran Duran were heralded, if not initiated, by two-page spreads in the music press. Go West, by contrast, did not run in from the left under some vague pretext of a revolt into style and colourmotion, had no pretensions to irony or spike.

"We were both in rehearsal bands, never did any gigs. We played material with an American feel, like Kenny Loggins, or Michael MacDonald, at a time when that sort of thing was completely unfashionable. When we did become fashionable – five years on – and were signed, the record company had the advantage of being able to get everything together at the same time – the video, the single."

Go West's tale of chart success is one that pop strategists such as ABC might have been excused for imagining had been dispensed with forever; drop a demo tape in the fruit machine and come up trumps. Go West are what happens when A&R men learn how to ignore the music press, ignore the live circuit, the indie dirtbox, cut corners and construct their own (notion of) "Celebrities". Go West were suitable because they looked like Wham! – and played like Phil Collins. Go West's muso globalism, clipped by funk and compensated with passion was, at once, a pleasing return to the old values – a major language, the rewardable virtue of competence – and also conducive to the demand for boys and lager-funk. Go West were Proper Musicians but also lads on the make. The perfect combination! After them come Wet Wet Wet and Living In A Box – a pop hell, in which "our" bands no longer have a hand at all.

But the last thing I want to do is say that Go West are wretched. I want to hear them speak. So I'm driven out to their hideaway, an estate in Chessington with rehearsal facilities, to meet these hounds from hell in their natural habitat. I want to make being Go West seem like the most reasonable thing in the world, just to show that it could happen to you or me.

It's a long journey and there is time to listen to the new album. As I expected, Songs From The Couch, finally available after delays due to technical difficulties and illness, is not a masterpiece. There are things in our culture that exceed it – the paintings of Tintoretti and Botticelli, for example or the singles of Racey. 'Crossfire' is akin to being made to eat a travel brochure dipped in honey. 'Chinese Whispers' and 'True Colours' are pasted pastiches of Level 42 so uncanny in places as to be worthy of the late Max Beerbohm. 'From Baltimore To Paris' is a song about Edward and Mrs Simpson. 'Masque Of Love' is good, and boasts a riff that has become as familiar to me as a brother.
'I Want To Hear It From You' is a song that I should like to have played at my funeral, but not before. It's glutinous, over-produced state-of-the-art stuff, with a grossly overstated voice deployed to compete, loudly, against the technological over-determination. That's what always galls about these records; it's not that they are flashy but that they are fleshy. It's not that they are too busy playing with metal to know what's going on but that they are well-meaning, reluctant to lose themselves in the callous jouissance and impersonality of pop.

Having said all that, I'm not expecting Go West to be friendly and well-meaning to me. Their rehearsal schedule is tight and, what's more, they know my sort. Time and patience are short. Peter Cox, however, is affable and, like all these coves who have Ruined Pop As We Knew And Loved It, is likeable and open, with nary a hint of Antichrist, nor any suggestion in his demeanour that he ever burnt down an orphanage in his life. He's one more good bloke.

Richard Drummie's initial politeness does soon give way to broody suspicion. He stares at me throughout the interview with what seems to be utter loathing. His grim, gimlet eye appears to be conducting a silent narrative of its own. Something like: "Why do you people bother us? What is it we're supposed to have done wrong? Become Pop? But it's perfectly obvious that we don't want to be that plastic or ephemeral. But then, we don't want to be revolutionaries either. It would be nice to occupy that middle ground. It would be nice just to get some respect. Oh, that bloody word, we're stuck with it – respectable! Level 42? That name always crops up, as if we both came out of the same box! Yes, we're musos. Why should we be ashamed of that? All we want to do is carry on as we are and get a bit of money for it. Is that unreasonable? I would have thought that was universal. We're not rich. Taking a band like this out on the road costs a bleedin' fortune, and we have to pay for it. What will I be doing in 30 years' time? That has to be the stupidest question I've ever heard."

Peter, when you look at pop, do you dislike what you see?

"Gimmick records do so well. Americans can't believe our charts. I saw Top Of The Pops last night and you had a sequence of Spurs scoring a goal. I couldn't believe that. There are musicians, like, one rung below who are denied a chart place because of Hoddle and Waddle. It's no big deal, I suppose, but, in a perfect world, the music charts would be full of music."

"You have to fight to be uncontrived. Every circumstance is un-natural, photograph sessions, videos, but (giant sigh) you have to give it the time. Chrysalis don't give us money because they like us. But we never quite succeed in coming across as we'd like to, you never do. Personally, I don't feel that I benefit in any way from that image side of things. We have a low public profile and we prefer it that way. The song 'Let's Build A Boat' is about escape and that's how we like to work – away from it all. In Denmark. In The Isle Of Man."

It seems to me that you want to have your cake and eat it to enjoy the remuneration of pop without fulfilling any of the responsibilities.

"What, like going out and smashing things up, or going out nobbing some dodgy personality?"

That would do for a start. But then there is the glamorous, the tragic... "We have our feet more or less Super-Glued to the ground. We enjoy ourselves but not riotously. We don't want to be boring people but we think you can be interesting without being shiny."

Richard: "When you talk about 'pop', we don't know what your tag is."

Go West, I'm saying, are too heavy and soulful to be considered pop.

"Well, yes, we'd rather be considered a soul band than a pop band."

Steady on, that wasn't meant as a compliment.

Do you feel that you have any kind of duty to your fans?

"Yes, if fans don't understand something about the music, then interviews are a good opportunity of clarifying matters."

Do you feel you have any kind of duty to the people who are most definitely not your fans?

"What do you mean?"

That even if you sell two million LPs, that still means that the vast majority of people don't like you; to them you are an irritation, on the radio, the TV. This is often forgotten.

"But they're not interested in us, are they?"

Richard: "How is this responsibility supposed to manifest itself? As an apology?"

That would do nicely.

"No, I'm sorry, if they haven't the intelligence to switch off the radio then I can't feel sorry."
What about jukeboxes? You see it really is very difficult to get away from you. We get pop whether we like it or not.

"Well, I must admit we don't lose sleep over that one. I suppose at one point we ourselves went into pubs and said to ourselves: 'We're fed up of all these dodgy records, let's make some of our own dodgy records,' ha ha!"

Go West are fugitives from pop. Like all "mature" pop, their "seriousness" consists in abstaining from the spectacle rather than engaging with it. Instead of ambiguity, mischief and front, they offer us biography, anxiety and accomplishment, all apologies for pop. Genesis to Exodus – Go West are forever on retreat. But who can blame them?

Out there in the real world, it's raining Wet Wet Wet and posters advertising Songs From The Couch are bursting out like boils all over the West End. I'd rather be on their side than our side. This is a nice place they've got here. I am the only interruption.

In fact, by the end of the interview, I want nothing more than to join Go West, join them in their green seclusion, flee with them away from pop's reckless claustrophobia, get a bit of peace and do my own thing. I could learn rhythm guitar, or acquire basic keyboard skills, or maybe just start off as a roadie. Well, why not? After all, like Go West, I'm a reasonable bloke, I'm only human.

Friday, March 30, 2012

the single greatest piece of pop writing ever?

the epilogue to Nik Cohn's AWOPBOPALOOBOP ALOPBAMBOOM

(published 1969, written mid-1968)

Probably, it’s not been a bad time to write this book: pop is at its most important junction yet, it’s the gap between two major phases, and this has been quite a clean moment to make some interval notes on it.

What I’ve written about has been the rise and Fall of Superpop, the noise machine, and the image, hype and beautiful flash of rock’n’roll music. Elvis riding on his golden Cadillac, James Brown throwing off his robes in a fit, Pete Towshend slaughtering his audience with machine-gun guitar, Mick Jagger hanging of his mike like Tarzan Weismuller in the jungle, P.J. Proby – all the heroic acts of pulp.

Superpop? It hasn’t been much, it’s been simple always, silly and vulgar and fake, and it has been a noise, that’s all. In the end, specific records and singers have hardly mattered. Instead, it’s been pop itself, just the existence of it, the drone of it running through everything.

Myself, I was ten when it started, I’m twenty-two now, and it has bossed my life. It has surrounded me always, cut me off, and it has given me my heroes, it has made my myths. Almost, it has done my living for me. Six hours of trash every day, and it’s meant more to me than anything else.

Superpop, it’s been like a continuing Western, it’s had that classic simplicity, the same power to turn cliché into myth. It’s had no mind of its own. All it’s ever done has been to catch currents, moods, teen obsessions, and freeze them in images. It has made giant caricatures of lust, violence, romance and revolt, and they’ve been the most powerful, most accurate fictions of this time.

And then, beyond the heroes, beyond anything, there’s been the noise, the endless and perfect and changeless beat. Noise has been everything.

Anyhow, it’s finished now, the first mindless explosion, and the second stage has begun. Pop has gotten complicated. That was inevitable, everything ends, nothing remains simple. Pop has split itself into factions and turned sophisticated. Part of it has a mind now, makes fine music. The other part is purely industrial, a bored and boring business like any other. Either way, there are no more heroes and no more Superpop. It has all been reduced to human beings.

What’s left? In England, the industry is split roughly eighty per cent ugly and twenty per cent idealist.

The ugly eighty are mainline pop, computerized, and they hit a largely teenybop or pre-teen market, ages six to sixteen, plus a big pocket of middle-aged parents. They have a function and they sell records. They make money. When I’ve said that, I’ve said everything.

The blue-eyed twenty are hardly even pop stars any more. With very few exceptions, notably the Beatles and the Stones, they don’t sell records, and, after all, what’s pop about unpopularity? In ten years, they’ll probably be called by another name entirely, electric music or something, and they’ll relate to pop the way that art movies relate to Hollywood.

How good could they be? Logically, there’s no limit – amplified music is an obvious art form for this century and there’s reason whatever why it shouldn’t produce major works.

Very soon, you’ll have pop composers writing formal works for pop choirs, pop orchestras; you’ll have pop concerts held in halls and the audience all sat in rows, no screaming or stamping but applauding politely with their hands; you’ll have sounds and visuals combined, records that are played on something like a gramophone and TV set knocked inot one, the music creating picture and patterns; you’ll have cleverness of every kind imaginable.

Myself, though, I’m not interested. Not that I have anything much against masterworks in principle but I’m hooked on image, on heroics. It’s like films – the best in art movies have no doubt been the most sensitive, brilliant and meaningful works of art, and where have I been? In the back row of the Roxy, of course, gawking at Hollywood. The art movie carries the quality and Hollywood carries the myth.

Superpop is mass media, it is teen music always, it has to hit. Ideally, it has to do what Bogart and Brando and Monroe have done in films, Gable and Fred Astaire – it has to be intelligent and simple both, it has to carry its implications lightly and
it has to be fast, funny, sexy, obsessive, a bit epic.

The words of Little Richard still apply. They summed up what pop was about in 1956. They sum it up now and always:

AWOPBOPALOOBOP ALOPBAMBOOM. -

Saturday, January 14, 2012

PULP
Freaks
Melody Maker
, May 1987

by Paul Oldfield


"FILE between Ian McEwan and Charles Hawtry," concluded one reviewer two years back, leaving us to tease out what that "between" is. Pulp are easily underestimated as ghosts from the Ealing or Hammer studio lots, standard bearers of the English-ness and depthless drollery we'd usually expect from El records.

The word "freak" comes nearer to their connection of comedy and horror: it suggests what's aberrant but recognisable, a source of laughter and shrinking fear. Even if Jarvis Cocker's vocal delivery brings Pulp within sight of It's Immaterial or The Fall, it's the crepuscular ballads, always bordering on histrionics, of Sixties godlike genius Scott Walker that are the nearest precedent.

Everyday life assumes the shudder of the uncanny in "Anorexic Beauty", where the ashen-faced and comically immobile mannequin girl exercises this dreadful attraction, comes too near beauty. In "I Want You", love is a catastrophic immolation. "I'll throw myself away, I'll break you because I love myself in you". In "They Suffocate At Night" intimacy develops till it wraps itself in polythene sheets, becomes exhaustion and vacuum, and "The Never-Ending Story"'s juggernaut Khachaturian refrain mimes endless reprieves for a failed love-affair.

Far from eccentric, Pulp's pasteboard theatre finds the freak limits of behaviour amid life's parking meters, bed-sits and milk floats of mundanity.
SPACEMEN 3 interview
Melody Maker, 1989?

by Paul Oldfield

Late afternoon, that hour of the day when nothing is ever decided, settles on the somnolent road of terraced houses in Rugby. Indoors, we’re with Spacemen 3, who really are just three in number today. The rusty vermilion light of a bar fire, the arid breath of a fan heater, and the near-pure atmosphere of roll-up fumes and lighter fuel brings on a fabulous torpor. In the midst of this indolence, with my tape-recorder picking up lengthening stretches of silence and static, we suddenly notice that life is passing by. Time for the photo session.

Outside, in an almost unnoticed passageway that cuts between the houses, the Spacemen stand there, ready for the plainest, straightest backyard shots. They had been thinking of posing in front of a wall-hanging patterned all over with their swirly, spiral logo, but it’s truer to see them in this backwater of red-brink and wilted plants. They look like an old photograph already, some long-lost moment freed from time and space. Just right for pop from nowhere, ebb-tide pop, pop that’s swallowed up in contemplation, becalmed. Maybe I’m imagining all this (I’m sure the Spacemen suspect I am) but the mood just at this moment is just like that of their formidable new album. Dejected, wasted, lost, but almost unbearably clear-headed and transparent, illuminated. At the end of the trip.

Spacemen 3 don’t need that op-art backdrop. “Playing With Fire” comes after “psychedilia”. It’s either beyond or further into the acid daze. True, there’s still the incandescence of “Revolution”, the single, or the barbed mesh of attrition in “Suicide”. But “Playing With Fire” has little of the engulfing gravitational pull, the black hole of pop, that sometimes connected the Spacemen with Loop. There’s less of their monochrome, Suicide-style minimalism as well, just hints now of the cool drift through the airwaves on Kraftwerk’s “Radioactivity” or Martin Rev’s “Clouds Of Glory”. And there’s little of the dream-like talk, diffusion and swooning gradients of the likes of My Bloody Valentine.

The enhanced, transcendent Sixties bliss that reached such a zenith in pop last year is hardly relevant to the Spacemen now. Instead, they’re like the after-birth of that era. Only House Of Love, maybe, approach anything like this. “Playing With Fire” is all distressed blues, under-the-breath vocals, and a feeling of coming down. There are a few moments in pop history that have reached a similar quiescence, reconciliation and cleansed vision – West-Coast acid rock (some of Love, Pearls Before Swine), Pink Floyd’s acoustic songs – but the Spacemen simply haven’t heard them.

It sounds as if they’ve reached insights or intensities so great that there’s no further to go. So how come such a meditational album is called “Playing With Fire”, the words written in flame on the sleeve?

“Because we’re playing with fire,” says Sonic Boom. “’Lord Can You Hear Me’ for instance. That might sound like just an attractive song, but when you listen to it carefully, you find it’s about suicide. And even today, just talking about that is playing with fire. Only a few months ago, suicide was more or less decriminalised in Holland. You can go to a doctor and arrange consultations about terminating your own life. But there was an incredible amount of flak aimed at the people who advocated that approach. We think that you ought to be able to contemplate suicide, whereas at the moment a suicide attempt is usually the first anybody knows about it.”

Contemplating suicide, being on that brink, is what your music feels like. Maybe you can tell me why such heightened consciousness, such an aching awareness of everything, always comes across best as a swan-song, a prelude to death.

“The chances are that death’s better than life, just because people always tell you that it’s worse, and everyone fears it. But no one can know it’s worse. And there are moments so beautiful that you wouldn’t want to live after them. If you’re separated from someone, or lose something you can’t do without, you don’t believe things can ever be as good again.

“All that’s worrying for us is that people might consider suicide just because music can beautify it.

“Back in the Thirties, there was a record by Bessie Smith so sad and so beautiful that loads of people just killed themselves within hours of hearing it. Maybe you could make a record that had the same effect, with subliminal prompting perhaps. Or it could just be Bessie Smith’s voice. That might be the reason we’ve never been able to find that record.”

Certainly there are epidemics of suicide, especially among susceptible adolescents. And there tend to be panics about literature or music that deal with it, as if they incited people to self-murder. It’s like the attempts to suppress drug “abuse”: some altered states or heightened consciousness are seen as playing with fire, getting access to something so sacred and special that it threatens life itself.

The songs on “Playing With Fire” sound reconciled with the world. If there’s a death wish, it’s because you feel utterly enlightened. You feel as if you’ve achieved perfect vision. It sounds nostalgic. I don’t mean that it looks back wishfully at other times, or that this is retro music. It’s nostalgic in the literal sense of the word: suffering home-sickness, wanting to be back where you belong. Wanting to be back in the paradisiacal world that you lost just by growing up. Is that why you, the Spacemen, as so deeply into gospel music? On this LP alone there are “I Believe It”, “Lord Can You Hear Me”, “So Hot (Wash Away All Of My Tears)”, “Come Down Softly To My Soul”. It sounds as if you’re waiting for the sweet chariot to carry you home.

“What attracts us to gospel, and especially to the early Staple Singers, is the energy, the belief. When they sing ‘Jesus Is My Friend’, it sound sounds as if they live next door to him. When you’re listening to that, you have to believe. To understand it, you need to have sat outside a black gospel church where there’s one guy with an electric guitar with tremolo on it, and they’re all clapping their hands and singing. With us, it’s always been fuzz and feedback, guitar drones or whatever, but both reach the same destination. Even our first album, ‘Sound Of Confusion’, is religious music, I think. It’s almost a religious experience playing it because it captures the belief, the self-belief, the search for purity that we’re about. It’s like a drug, and gospel can be too when it’s ecstatic and dream-like, when it’s elated.”

That’s it. Elated, carried off. Gospel really expects to find the Promised Land again. And if you do, you don’t want to come back to this life.

Do you think your music’s like gospel in that you’re taken over by it, released from yourself? Do you go from nostalgia to analgesia, from the pain of not being where you belong, the pain of living, to a state where all your pains are taken away? Your song title “How Does It Feel” reminds me of a slow-motion mid-Sixties dream-pop number by the Creation, “How Does It Feel To Feel?” And “Let Me Down Gently” and “Come Down Softly” make me think about anaesthesia. Are you numbed by enlightenment? To quote your sparring partners Loop, which you won’t like, is your trip “Too Real To Feel”?

“I never understood that ‘Too Real To Feel’. It sounds like someone who’s tried to write a song about drugs but hasn’t got a clue. Both LSD and schizophrenia, which you’ve been comparing it to, are about heightening of experience, living more intensely. As far as schizoids go, they’re very intense, they’re really there all the time. I should know, I’ve spent time with people like that in an institution. Our music’s really there, it’s nothing to do with not feeling.”

You want to turn on, but not drop out, not freefall into oblivion?

“No, giving yourself up altogether can be fatalism. And a lot of ‘Playing With Fire’ is about dissatisfaction. We feel alien, alienated. We write a lot about suicide, but we still want to see a world where suicide isn’t what people resort to. We want to change things for the better. What we’re saying isn’t surprising, isn’t staggeringly original. It’s as obvious as the words we put on the LP cover, ‘LOVE, PURITY, BELIEF, ACCURACY…’. But because you have people like Margaret Thatcher putting across their opinions so loud, you have to have people like Psychic TV, or The Shamen, or us speaking up to say things that wouldn’t have to be said at all if the world wasn’t so f***ed-up.”

Chris Roberts said that he thought people were attracted to alienation, to being f***ed-up, that some people live through it…

“For Chris Roberts, the ‘f***ed-up children of this world’ is probably a really romantic notion. For us, it isn’t. We want out of it.”

Which brings us to “Revolution”. Not a case of “take me to the river” this time, but a baptism of fire. “The time is right… a little… revolution.” Very like an MC5 song. The video didn’t make it look very incendiary, though.

“We were filmed quite straight. Still, we look cool sitting there, which is exactly what we do on stage – it’s very MC5-like as well. People might have the wrong idea about them. They didn’t behave like Seventies New Wave. They didn’t move much either – X marks the spot stuff – though they really got into it. We put in even more muscle power than them. We do it through our instruments, not our legs.”

MC5 and The Stooges sounded like an insurrection though. Surely Spacemen 3 aren’t about that flash-point iconoclasm?

“Well, we do believe in revolution. But our dreams are attainable goals. We can’t make all the changes now, true, not even in our lifetime, maybe not before our civilisation collapses. You can only try to bring about changes every day.

“There is a revolution, a drug revolution, happening in this country, I’m convinced. When we first heard about Ecstasy last year, it wasn’t even known around these parts. Now it’s everywhere and is a socially acceptable drug. It’s compatible with work, which isn't true of LSD. Ecstasy – a stupid name, better to say MDMA – has an impact on people’s lives, but not adversely. It’s beneficial for people’s perceptions, not as dramatic or traumatic as acid. If you gave drugs to 10 teenagers, all 10 would come back for more MDMA, and maybe two for more LSD.

“But as soon as something useful is discovered, it’s suppressed. MDMA was a drug developed for research psychologists, just as LSD was, but now it’s been made illegal. The difference with this drug is it’s so manageable that many more people will and have their minds altered.”

If people use MDMA for recreation, as you said earlier, that’s not altering anything, just enhancing their nightlife a little. Should we want to fulfil ourselves just a bit more with responsible drug use, or should we be changing ourselves, abolishing reality altogether?

“There’s nothing wrong with fulfilling yourself. Anyone who doesn’t think they need to improve their life needs help. Fulfilling yourself is fine, as long as you don’t do it at anyone else’s expense. And anyway, I can’t imagine being happy until everyone else is as well.”

As their press release says, “They could be talking ‘Revolution’. They could be talking ‘transparent Radiation’.” In fact, they’re talking both. Their revolution is almost a holy revolution that wills the impossible dream of heaven on earth for everyone. It’s a terrific enlightenment and light (they call their pop “levitation”) that’s almost unbearably, unlivably lucid. A window into heaven opening up in a Rugby backstreet.

Go through their baptism of fire and illumination and hear an early contender for album of the year.
A GUY CALLED GERALD
ULU, LONDON
Melody Maker, probably 1989 or 1990

by Paul Oldfield


Put A Guy Called Gerald beside the beatmasters, radical rap and survivalist electrodub that make up the rest of tonight's acts, and you'll see that he's somewhere else. Their urgency and agency, their in-your-face imperatives are replaced by his new narcosis and lotus—eating, becalmed passivity. It's all embodied in Gerald himself. There's none of the "front" or danger of the crews that precede him, just a familiar, somnolent Mancunian accent and patient behind-the-scenes programming. If it weren't for his singer up front, and the crowd downstairs setting up an incongruous terrace chant for ''Voo-doo Ray", it'd be more ambience than act.

That's appropriate. Gerald and his northern satellites launched New Age", aka "ambient" house, the phenomenon that emphasises the trance in trance dance, and should reconcile House music with "head" rock. Both musics can offer the same fix, or rather un-fixing of consciousness. Both can free you from the co-ordinates of the here and now, and let you attain oneness with the world and peace.

Gerald translates House music from urban night-life to paradisial, pacific (often literally Pacific, with a capital P) scenes. Tonight there's "Eyes Of Sorrow", with its rainforest percussion and pipes; or 'Voodoo Ray", with its slow-scanning ritual limbo from the tropics; or, as an encore, Gerald's own reading of the halcyon surf of "Pacific State". While rock, rap, dub have kept faith in Africa's heartland, the place of origins and history, House has escaped to the southern hemisphere's soporific, out-of-time innocence and unworldly primitivism.

That shows in the minimalist fluctuations and meander of "Subtopia", a serenity you can lose yourself in. Gerald's visual effects confirm this mesmerising tranquility at the heart of House too. They look as if they're influenced by the new model for the natural sciences, chaos theory (very much a buzz concept in club culture): instead of predictable forces and counter-forces (the grammar of "techno" music), there's indeterminacy and turbulence, back-projections of vapour, clouds, shoals of fish, self-ordering but unpredictable organic forms that fascinate.

But Gerald doesn't celebrate just nature or an Edenic past (none of rock's third-world heritage industry here). He's an urepentant futurist. Just hear "Automanic", his preview of the forthcoming album: all print-out chatter, split-second samples and arc—light strobes on stage. Or "FX", an ascent through a Lloyds-building ziggurat of glass and steel. Think Tokyo, think Ridley Scott. It doesn't contradict his Pacific states, though. He's found tomorrow's paradise, where hi-tech achieves voodoo's instantaneity of communication, and where cities dematerialise into flows of light and information (think Kraftwerk), a mosaic of signals as mesmerising as the time-lapse record of city life in the film "Kooanisquatsi", but without that film's technophobic undertones.

Gerald's performance is "plastic", as his music's often been called. Plastic in the original sense, of course: adapting to all kinds of shapes, a hypnotic, becalming changeability. Go with the flow.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012