Friday, December 30, 2011

"Peel Bands": Prefects, Notsensibles, Spizzenergi, Fatal Microbes and others

A legion of eccentrics with four-track tape-recorders in their bedsits sent off singles, and if the track caught BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel's ear they'd enjoy a brief taste of glory on the national airwaves.
Taken from one of two sessions this Birmingham band did for Peel, "Going Through the Motions" takes the piss out of of professionalized-to-living-death rock bands by fully enacting the title: the beat limps like it's sprained in both ankles, the guitars dirge gruesomely, Robert Lloyd's voice is a listless, tuneless wail.

Prefects - Going Through the Motions 1980

Just vocals and percussion, Furious Pig's yowling zoo-music resembles a pygmy barbershop quartet. "I Don't Like Your Face", their sole single for Rough Trade, was based on the sort of mean thing children say in the playground, they told the NME: 'Kids are really nasty'.

Furious Pig - I Don't Like Your Face 1980

From its fluster-flurry of buzzsaw guitar chords to the gormless jabbered harmonies and lines like 'Margaret Thatcher is so sexy/She's the girl for you and me/I go red when she's on the telly/'Cos I think she fancies me', the Notsensibles' most famous ditty, "(I'm In Love with) Margaret Thatcher", taps into the side of punk all about not taking anything seriously.

Notsensibles - (I'm in Love with) Margaret Thatcher 1979

Leaning more towards the New Wave/early evening Radio One end of things, but a definite Peel fave, "Where's Captain Kirk?" is an hectic, panic-stricken hurtle which enjoyed seven weeks at number 1 in the independent chart.

Spizzenergi - Where's Captain Kirk? 1979

Sung by mainman Alig Fodder from the point of view of a man who's in a state of arrested putrefaction ('There's times I feel fungus growing on me') and wishes he could get it over with and be dead, "Playing Gold (with My Flesh Crawling)" is a macabre yet chirpy ditty which features a phantasmagoria of wobbly processed vocals, jaunty organ and No Wave-like screech-guitar.

Family Fodder - Playing Golf (with My Flesh Crawling) 1979

Ammoniacaustic guitar, jabs of atonal synth, and singer Jaz Coleman growling about sinister 'controllers' and nuns getting fucked - Killing Joke's "Pssyche" is simultaneously silly and scary.

Killing Joke - Pssyche 1980

Buzzcock Pete Shelley explores his Krautrock/Fripp & Eno avant-rocky side in tandem with a Manchester teenager called Eric Random to produce a blitzkrieg of pounding drums and Neu!-like guitar clangour in "Big Noise from the Jungle".

The Tiller Boys - Big Noise from the Jungle 1979

In "Violence Grows" the baleful pop tones of fifteen-year old punk starlet Honey Bane survey London's frayed social fabric in a banner year for street violence. Gloatingly noting how bus conductors have learned to keep their traps shut when thugs refuse to pay, Bane then taunts the listener: 'While you're getting kicked to death in a London pedestrian subway/Don't think passers-by will help/They'll just look the other way'. Slow-drone psychedelia midway between The Doors' "The End" and the Velvets' "Venus in Furs" swirls behind her. An astonishing one-off.

Fatal Microbes - Violence Grows 1979

The Doors - The End 1967

Velvet Underground - Venus in Furs 1967

Cloying whimsy collides with genuine psychedelic strangeness on "There Goes Concorde Again", the brainchild of two Wimbledon School of Art graduates, William Wilding and Nanette Greenblatt. Buoyed by moonwalking bass and keyboard that caper like tipsy aliens, Greenblatt plays the batty housewife peering through net curtains and cooing, 'Oooooooh, look - there goes Concorde again!'

(And The) Native Hipsters - There Goes Concorde Again 1980

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Messthetics: The Flying Lizards, This Heat, The Raincoats, The Red Crayola, Young Marble Giants

In the autumn of 1979 The Flying Lizards' cover of "Money (That's What I Want)" took the avant-classical sound of 'prepared instruments' into the UK Top 5. The record's bass drum isn't a drum but a bass guitar being hit with a stick. The banjo-like piano sound was created by throwing an assortment of objects - rubber toys, a glass ashtray, a telephone directory, a cassette-recorder, sheet music - inside the piano. The distortion-overloaded guitar solo gesticulates wildly, like an overexcited man, and the backing vocals sound like tribesfolk chanting in the rain forest.
Originally co-written by Berry Gordy Jr, "Money" is probably most famous in its Beatles version. In this version, John Lennon's prole-on-the-make insolence thrills because the 'cynicism' (valuing material wealth over love) feels bracingly unsentimental and the song shakes with a working-class hunger and confidence that won't be contained. The Lizards' remake subverts The Beatles' subversion. All icily enunciated hauteur and blue-blooded sang-froid, singer Deborah Evans replaces Lennon's lusty rasp with the dead-eye disdain of the ruling class.

The Beatles - Money (That's What I Want) 1963

The Flying Lizards - Money (That's What I Want) 1979

On "24 Track Loop" - one of the highlights of This Heat's self-titled 1979 debut LP - they fed Charles Hayward's frantically funky drums through a device called the Harmonizer to create chiming and creaking tuned-percussion timbres that prophesy nineties jungle.

This Heat - 24 Track Loop 1979

Deceit, from 1981, was almost a concept album about nuclear Armageddon. 

Opener "Sleep" imagines power lulling people into apathy with consumerism and entertainment: 'a life cocooned in a routine of food'.

This Heat - Sleep 1981

The band also projected a ferocious sobriety via their image. Deceit's back cover shows the band - Hayward, bassist Gareth Williams and multi-instrumentalist Charles Bullen - dressed in ties and jackets, with short, neat haircuts and stern frowns on their faces.

The Raincoats sometimes addressed the 'big issues' - "Off Duty Trip", for instance, concerned a notorious rape trial of the day, in which the perpetrator was treated leniently by a judge to avoid damaging his military career.

The Raincoats - Off Duty Trip 1979

The Raincoats' second album, Odyshape, is post-punk that's been totally unrocked.

"Only Loved At Night", the album's stand-out track is like a gamelan music-box, the different patterns interlocking like intricate cogs. On this song, as with much of Odyshape, the group swapped instrumental roles (a common post-punk ruse to keep things fresh), with violinist Vicky Aspinall playing bass and bassist Gina Birch contributing drone guitar, while guitarist Ana da Silva produces wistful chimes from her kalimba, an African thumb-piano. Charles Hayward's clockwork percussion, added after the fact, is decorative, just one of many parallel pulses.

The Raincoats - Only Loved At Night 1981

Released on Rough Trade in 1981, The Red Crayola's Kangaroo? featured lyrics from conceptual art collective Art & Language that addressed various 'monstrosities' produced by the internal contradictions of bourgeois culture. 

There were also whimsically ornate exercises in Soviet suprarealist rock like "The Tractor Driver" and "The Milkmaid", humorous attempts, leader Mayo Thompson says, to imagine what 'a socialist song [would] sound like'.

The Red Crayola - The Tractor Driver 1981

The Red Crayola - The Milkmaid 1981

"Final Day" is perhaps Young Marble Giants' best and certainly their best-known song. To get the single-note whine that runs through the whole track and evokes what main songwriter Stuart Moxham calls 'the low-level dread' of living with the possibility of nuclear annihilation, he stuck a matchstick in one of the organ keys. But what's most chilling about "Final Day" is its brevity (just 1 minute and 39 seconds) and singer Alison Statton's fatalistic tone as she sings 'When the light goes out on the final day/We will all be gone having had our say'.

Young Marble Giants - Final Day 1980

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Language is the enemy: Scritti Politti's politics

Listening to songs like "Is and Ought the Western World", whose lyrics oscillated line by line between the prosaic details of everyday oppression and the abstract contours of deep political structure, it was clear that Scritti had moved as far beyond Gang of Four's schematic case studies as that band had advanced upon Tom Robinson's tell-it-like-it-is protest songs.

Scritti Politti - Is and Ought the Western World 1978

In the chorus of "Messthetics" Green declares 'We know what we're doing', by which he meant that the music was fractured on purpose. But in a larger sense Scritti managed to convince many people that they did - or at least were thinking more rigorously about the crucial quandaries than anybody else.

Scritti Politti - Messthetics 1979

Prominent among the ideas whizzing about was Gramsci's concept of 'hegemony' - a catch-all term that covers the official ideology of state, Church and other institutions, along with the more diffuse and subliminal 'commonsense' assumptions that hold together a social system. In Scritti's brittle ditty of the same name Green personifies Hegemony as 'the foulest creature that set upon a race'. He sounds racked, as if he's desperately struggling to free himself from Hegemony's mental tentacles: 'How do you do this?/How can you do it to me?' At the chorus, the group derisively recite the sort of platitudes that seem pre-political in their 'obviousness' but actually work as hegemony's glue: 'an honest day's pay for an honest day's work'; 'you can't change human nature'; 'some are born to lead and others born to follow'. At song's end, Scritti mocks the clichés that preserve rock's own stasis quo: 'rock 'n' roll is here to stay' 'but can you dance to it?'; 'walk it like you talk it'.

Scritti Politti - Hegemony 1979

On the sleeve of the group's third release, the Peel Sessions EP, a page from the imaginary book Scritto's Republic proposes the idea of language as a sort of conductive fluid for power - permeating our consciouness and constructing 'reality'. 

In "P.A.s' - the last track on 4 A Sides - Green sings about Italy in 1920 and Germany in 1933 as moments when 'the language shuts down'. In his most honeyed, airy tones, he ponders the mystery of popular support for totalitarianism - 'How/Did they all decide?...What was irrational/Is national!' - then imagines mass unemployment making the same thing happen in eighties Britain.

Scritti Politti - P.A.s 1979

In these conditions, despair is always just a heartbeat away. The fraught energy of 4 A Sides' "Bibbly-O'Tek" fades with the bleak aside, 'Which reminds me, there's no escape', before rallying itself for the struggle.

Scritti Politti - Bibbly-O'Tek 1979

Throughout 4 A Sides, the sheer joy and fervour of music-making itself triumphs: "Doubt Beat" sounds resolute, with Tom Morley's driving drums and Nial Jinks' wriggly, melodic, funk bass conjuring what Gramsci called 'optimism of the will' sufficient to counter the lyrics' 'pessimism of the intellect'.

Scritti Politti - Doubt Beat 1979

'There must be harder than this', Green pleads in "Scritlocks Door", meaning harder than the flabby thinking and 'ill-sorted' ideas of rock culture.

Scritti Politti - Scritlocks Door 1979

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Scritti Politti - Skank Bloc Bologna

I step into the room and immediately stumble against a typewriter lurking on the dingy brown carpet. A small tower of books perches precariously on top of the machine. Next to it lies a half-drunk mug of coffee, its thick meniscus greeny-grey with mould. Jutting stacks of pamphlets, broadsheets, and academic paperbacks sprawl across every available surface - TV, mantelpiece, even the top of the gas fire - while the bookshelves look close to collapsing. On the wall above the fireplace, poking through an overlapping foliage of gig flyers and activist leaflets, there's a seven-inch single and a framed Hammer & Sickle, with a used teabag dangling irreverently off the latter's blade.
I never visited Scritti Politti's squat, located in a nondescript side street in Camden, north London. But I feel like I did. As a sixteen-year-old, I stared endlessly at the black-and-white photo of Scritti's living room on the front of their 4 A Sides EP. 

In Scritti's debut single, "Skank Bloc Bologna", there's a brief, sardonic allusion to The Clash's idea of themselves as 'The Magnificent Seven'. (Scritti's leader Green had read an NME interview in which the band compared themselves to the posse of vigilante heroes). 'They said they felt like...a bunch of outlaws that would come into town to put everything to rights', Green told one fanzine. The song's last verse, he explained, punctured this 'silly over-romanticized notion' of the rock group as 'macho gunslingers, the Robin Hoods of today'.
The 'skank' is easy to place: the loping, white-reggae groove of the bass and drums, which Green overlays with plangent rhythm guitar closer to folk-rock than punk. The 'bloc' is a buried allusion to Gramsci (one of Scritti's favourite neo-Marxist theorists) and his concept of the 'historic bloc': an alliance of oppressed classes uniting to overturn the existing order and overhaul the dominant 'common-sense' worldview of what's natural, ordained, possible - revolution as the creation of a new reality. The 'Bologna' of the title is another story: in early 1977 Bologna's Communist mayor lost control of the city to a riotous coalition of 'autonomists' and counter-culture radicals. Self-organized and carnivalesque, il Movimento - as it was nicknamed - aimed not to seize power but to smash it altogether, leaving everybody and nobody in charge. But Mayor Zangheri denounced the rioters as bohemian nihilists and enemies of the proletariat, and after several weeks called in armoured cars to crush the rebellion.
The title 'Skank Bloc Bologna' seems to imagine the Scritti squat as the germ of a future Movimento Inglesi. Yet the tone of the song is desolate. The verses zoom in on a girl adrift: the hapless, hopeless product of bad education and stifled imagination, she's got no sense that change is even possible. Green sounds like he's fighting his own despair - in sleepy London town, revolution seems a long way off. But even if the girl doesn't know it, 'Something in Italy/Is keeping us all alive'. And closer to home there's 'the magnificent six' (the number in the Scritti collective at that point), with their schemes and dreams: 'They're working on a notion and they're working on a hope/A Euro vision and a skanking scope'.
The melody's off-kilter beauty and the plaintive melancholy of Green's singing (indebted to the 'English soul' of Robert Wyatt), along with the intrigue of the lyrics and that cryptic title, captured the imagination.

Scritti Politti - Skank Bloc Bologna 1978

On the photocopied sleeve, Scritti went one better than The Desperate Bicycles in the demystification stakes, itemizing the complete costs of recording, mastering, pressing, printing the labels and so on, along with contact numbers for companies who provided these services.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Conceptual art: Wire's first three albums

Many of Wire's songs were written as acts of speculation: what would happen if you rewrote "Johnny B. Goode" using only one chord? (The answer: debut album Pink Flag's title track). 

Wire - Pink Flag - 1977

Singer/guitarist Colin Newman composed "106 Beats That" on an agonizingly delayed train journey between Watford and London, during which he devised a complicated system of correspondences between the names of railway stations and guitar chords. Bassist Graham Lewis's words for "106 Beats That" came out of a failed attempt to write a lyric that contained only a hundred syllables: 'It turns out it's got one hundred and six, but that doesn't matter, because you've created a process'.

Wire - 106 Beats That - 1977

Newman wrote a lyric about a lion tamer that Lewis mostly didn't care for, so he deleted all the bits he didn't like and replaced them - hence the song's eventual title, "Ex-Lion Tamer". Dismembering sequential narrative was a favourite Lewis tactic.

Wire - Ex-Lion Tamer - 1977

Their sophomore album Chairs Missing reinvents psychedelia while preserving the group's signature quality of monochromatic minimalism.

The guitars have an ultra-vivid gloss; "French Film Blurred" is a vitreous shimmer, while the lyrics came from Newman's attempt to watch a foreign movie on a TV with reception so poor he couldn't read the subtitles, forcing him to make up the dialogue.

Wire - French Film Blurred - 1978

On "Being Sucked in Again" even the bass emits an unnatural glow, like fluorescent marble.

Wire - Being Sucked in Again - 1978

Producer Mike Thorne had brought back state-of-the-art effects units from America: MX-R distortion, flanges, and new sound effects operating in what Thorne calls 'the time domain, like delays and chorus pedals'. Says Newman, 'The MX-R unit provided this very clean and un-heavy metal distortion. "I Am The Fly" is literally that sound - like glass. On Chairs Missing we were just streets ahead when it came to guitar sounds'.

Wire - I Am The Fly - 1978

For a towering post-punk masterpiece, though, Chairs Missing received a surprisingly mixed reception in 1978. The NME's Monty Smith accused the group of degenerating from Pink Flag to Pink Floyd in less than a year. But, apart from the odd Electric Prunes-like guitar sound, the only true sixties throwback on the album was the beguilling, Byrds-like "Outdoor Miner" - the closest Wire ever got to a hit single - with its honeyed harmonies and idyllic, chiming chords. Dense with assonance and internal rhyme, the lyric to "Outdoor Miner" sounds like sensuous nonsense, a typical example of Wire revelling in language for its melt-in-your-mouth musicality rather than meaning. (Typical line: 'face worker, serpentine miner, a roof falls, an underliner, of leaf structure the egg timer'.) In fact, it was obliquely inspired by a Radio Four wildlife programme, from which Lewis learned about a bug called the serpentine miner, which lives inside holly leaves and eats chlorophyll.

Wire - Outdoor Miner - 1978

"Marooned" was a fantasy vignette about an Arctic castaway resigned to his fate - 'as the water gets warmer my iceberg gets smaller'.

Wire - Marooned - 1978

By their third album, 154, Wire's music was becoming almost oppressively textured. 

The opener, "I Should Have Known Better", sung by Lewis in a doomy baritone, expressed animosity with steely precision: 'I haven't found a measure yet/To calibrate my displeasure yet'.

Wire - I Should Have Known Better - 1979

Newman's "Two People in a Room" depicted emotional conflict as stratagem and manoeuvre ('Positions are shifted/The cease-fire unlifted') and elliptically evoked the disintegration of Wire itself into rival aesthetic camps.

Wire - Two People in a Room - 1979

All densely overdubbed guitars and stacked vocals, "Map Ref. 41° N 93° W", the single off 154, was majestic, but its beauty was oddly remote, just like the cartographer's eye-view lyric, inspired by a flight over Iowa. As pop choruses go, 'Lines of longitude and latitude/Define and refine my altitude' doesn't exactly scream, 'chart potential'.

Wire - Map Ref. 41° N 93° W - 1979

Graham Lewis described Pink Flag's "Lowdown" as 'an experiment in deconstructed funk, almost a critique of funk - very dark and slowed down, to the point of non-funkiness'.

Wire - Lowdown - 1977

When the four reunited in 1985 to have a second crack at being Wire, they rededicated themselves to the monolithic, funkless force rhythm they nicknamed 'dugga'. The first song they wrote after five years apart was called "Drill". And it sounded like one.

Wire - Drill 1986

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Talking Heads' first four albums

Talking Heads' early stage fave "Psycho Killer" virtually patented that twitchy New Wave feel of abruptness and agitation. 'I always liked slightly herky-jerky spastic rhythms. I gravitated towards those", says leader David Byrne.

Talking Heads - Psycho Killer 1977

Graced with a melody that shimmers like a hummingbird dipping for nectar, "Don't Worry about the Government" (from the debut Talking Heads 77) broke with rock's tired tradition of "Mr. Jones" songs and instead empathized with office drones everywhere. Inspired by Maoist ideas and management theory, Byrne was playing with the notion - sacrilegious, in the rock mindset - that 'uniformity and restriction don't have to be debilitating and degrading'.

Talking Heads - Don't Worry about the Government 1977

More Songs about Buildings and Food, the second album, was the first with producer Brian Eno. 

Both band and producer had been listening closely to the recent output of Parliament-Funkadelic, with its ultra-vivid palette of heavily treated instruments. Parliament also pioneered synth-bass on tracks like "Flashlight" (a massive US hit in 1978), with keyboardist Bernie Worrell stacking multiple Moog low-end tones to create the most gloopily lubricious bassline ever heard.

Parliament - Flashlight 1978

Eno loved creating new strange new sound-colours using effects and the studio-as-instrument. You can hear this chromatic quality at its most intense with the splashy reverbered drums at the start of "Warning Sign" and the famous 'underwater' sound of "Take Me to the River".

Talking Heads - Warning Sign 1978

Talking Heads - Take Me to the River 1978

With 1979's Fear of Music, Talking Heads plunged deeper into white funkadelia, but the feel is decidedly late seventies - psychedelia as media-overloaded disorientation, not trippy serenity. 

Germany's Red Army Faction and the Symbionese Liberation Army (Patty Hearst's kidnappers) inspired "Life During Wartime", the album's only overtly topical tune. Byrne goes beyond the obvious excitements of being an undercover terrorist (always on the move, switching identities, carrying several passports) by imagining the character's secret regrets: no time for 'fooling around', romance or nightclubbing.

Talking Heads - Life During Wartime 1979

Elsewhere, the symptoms of disquiet and malaise are more quirky. "Air" is the lament of someone so vulnerable that even contact with the atmosphere hurts ('some people don't know shit about the air', he whinges), while "Animals" features an Alf Garnett-like grouch gruffly ranting about the wildlife being irresponsible and generally 'making a fool of us'.

Talking Heads - Air 1979

Talking Heads - Animals 1979

The most advanced pieces, in terms of their structure and methodology, were the opening "I Zimbra" and the closing "Drugs". The former combined Africa-influenced percussion, propulsive disco bass, and Byrne chanting nonsense syllables originally written and performed by Hugo Ball as Dadaist sound poetry.

Talking Heads - I Zimbra 1979

"Drugs", a slow, faltering groove riddled with hallucinatory after-images and light-streaks, evoked altered states. In order to nail the panic-attack vibe he wanted, Byrne tried to make himself hyperventilate: 'I'd run around in circles until I was completely out ot breath and then gasp, "OK, I'm ready to sing the next verse!"' The most radical aspect of "Drugs" was its discombobulated gait and gap-riddled structure, full of lapses and phase shifts. 'Brian and I tore the song down to its basic elements and then built it up again with new stuff, replaying certain parts and replacing certain instruments'. The resulting mosaic of live band playing and sound collage was something almost impossible to reproduce onstage.

Talking Heads - Drugs 1979

"Drugs" was the germ of the next album, Remain in Light, on which the band would generate a mass of rhythms and riffs that were then sifted through and stitched together at the mixing desk.

The tracks were built out of layers of percussion, tics of rhythm guitar, synth daubs and multiple bass riffs (on "Born Under Punches", there were at least five basses, each doing simple one- or two-note pulses). Glyphs of keyboard coloration darted through the drum foliage like tropical birds.

Talking Heads - Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On) 1980

Byrne even attempted a stiff-necked form of rapping on "Crosseyed and Painless". In "Born" and "Crosseyed" Byrne's protagonists are caged inside the clockwork grid of the industrial West, its hamster-wheel of schedules and time-is-money.

Talking Heads - Crosseyed and Painless 1980

In "Once in a Lifetime" a suburban man wonders how he ended up here with all his beautiful property (house, car, wife). He's 'not upset or tormented', Byrne has said, 'just bewildered. And then in contrast the chorus is meant to convey a feeling of ecstatic surrender'. This shattering epiphany punctures the ordered absurdity of workaday life and brings the possibility of rebirth and renewed wonder.

Talking Heads - Once in a Lifetime 1980

Or perhaps not: "Once in a Lifetime" is immediately followed by the spooky "Houses in Motion", in which we observe a man 'digging his own grave' in daily instalments of empty industriousness.

Talking Heads - Houses in Motion 1980

"The Great Curve" was an ecofeminist rhythm hymn to Gaia, its chorus 'the world moves on a woman's hips' inspired by the Yoruba's Great Mother cosmology.

Talking Heads - The Great Curve 1980

"Listening Wind" makes us empathize with a North African man fighting Coca-Colonization by sending letter bombs and planting devices. Says Byrne, 'It's the point of view of someone being swamped by the West, their lives and culture destroyed. His retaliation is so limited compared with the might of the global powers, it's pretty easy to identify with - especially for someon who fancied himself an underdog in the music world'.

Talking Heads - Listening Wind 1980

At the end of the album, though, modernity's malaise reasserts itself with "The Overload", a droning dirge inspired by Joy Division in uniquely oblique fashion - Talking Heads had never heard Joy Division's records, but had been intrigued by the record reviews. The whitest-sounding music on the album, the song is appropriately the most angst-racked, with Byrne numbly intoning lyrics about missing centres, terrible signals, 'a gentle collapsing'. It's as if the African dream has dissolved and we're back in the psychic hollow lands of Fear of Music.

Talking Heads - The Overload 1980

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Almost black: James Chance and The Contortions

James Brown's influence as the founding musical text for his band Contortions is pinpointed by James Chance to a single track: 1970's "Super Bad, Pts 1 and 2". 'What really got me into JB was the sax solos on that single - real out-there playing like you'd get on an Ayler or Sun Ra record'.

James Brown - Super Bad, Pts 1 and 2 - 1970

Rhythmically and lyrically, James Brown songs like "Sex Machine" and "I Got Ants in My Pants" pointed towards a racked ecstasy of painful pleasure that was almost dehumanizing. Picking up on these hints, Chance imagined funk as voodoo possession and cold-fever delirium - the perfect vehicle for exploring themes of addiction, sexual bondage and morbid ossession.

James Brown - Sex Machine 1970

James Brown - I Got Ants in My Pants 1972

For the disco album Off White, the members of Contortions were hired as session musicians and the project was credited to James White and The Blacks.

"Stained Sheets" resembles a sordid S&M twist on Donna Summer's "Love to Love You Baby": it's a phone-sex duet between Chance and Lydia Lunch, juxtaposing his blasé sneer with her orgasmic whimpers and non-verbal desperation.

James White and The Blacks (feat. Lydia Lunch) - Stained Sheets 1979

Donna Summer - Love to Love You Baby 1975

Off White and its sister album Buy probed the darker corners of sexuality. Buy's cover featured Terry Sellers, author of The Corrected Sadist, scantily clad in panties and a strange, deconstructed bra designed by Chance's lover/manager Anya Philips.

Inside "I Don't Want to Be Happy" confessed that Chance's 'idea of fun' was 'being whipped on the back of the thighs', while in "Bedroom Athlete" he yelps, 'I won't be your slave unless you will be mine'.

James Chance and The Contortions - I Don't Want to Be Happy 1979

James Chance and The Contortions - Bedroom Athlete 1979

Off White, meanwhile, verged on a musical essay about racial tourism, with the track "Almost Black" representing the most dubious homage to blackness as sociopathology/virile primitivism since Norman Mailer's 1957 essay 'The White Negro'. The track features a white girl and a black girl bitterly disputing the attributes and defects of 'James White': 'Well, he's almost black', 'That nigger's white ', 'Well he's got some moves', 'But they ain't right'.

James White and The Blacks - Almost Black 1979

Appearing on both Buy and Off White in different versions, the anthem "Contort Yourself" evoked a sort of jaded Dionysian frenzy, the joyless flailing of empty souls trying to evacuate even more of their consciousness: 'Take out all the garbage that's in your brain ... Why don't you try being stupid instead of smart?'

James Chance and The Contortions - Contort Yourself 1979

James White and The Blacks - Contort Yourself 1979

Sunday, November 20, 2011

No Wave: Mars and Teenage Jesus & The Jerks

'Insects in upstate New York' inspired the chittering soundswarm of "Helen Forsdale", says Mars guitarist China Burg. 'We were trying to get the guitars to buzz'.

Mars - Helen Forsdale 1978

Burg's and vocalist Sumner Crane's vocals sounded like torture victims or people undergoing extreme states of dissociation or mania. Voice as weapon or wound, their singing sounds deeply disturbed and is genuinely perturbing - at the extreme (say, in "Hairwaves") resembling the debris of a shattered psyche.

Mars - Hairwaves 1978

"Orphans" is probably Teenage Jesus & The Jerks's most famous song (largely for its couplet 'No more ankles and no more toes/Little orphans running through the bloody snow'), but the group's archetypal 'short fast soundstab' is "The Closet". Drummer Bradley Field's hammer-blow snare and singer Lydia Lunch's harrowed shriek merge into a tolling death-knell rhythm midway between spasm and dirge. The whole vibe runs the gamut of vaguely Teutonic s-words: stark, severe, strict.

Teenage Jesus & The Jerks - Orphans 1978

Teenage Jesus & The Jerks - The Closet 1978

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Industrial's black sheeps: Clock DVA and 23 Skidoo

Laced with moody, sick-inside saxophone and driven by a ruminative scowl of a bassline, "4 Hours" comes closest to achieving Clock DVA's funk noir goal.

Clock DVA - 4 Hours 1981

23 Skidoo's mini-LP Seven Songs opens with "Kundalini", a malevolent tumble of hand percussion, guitar feedback and guttural chants.

23 Skidoo - Kundalini 1982

On "Vegas el Bandito", seething slap-bass and brittle-nerved rhythm jostle with lost-in-endless-fog trumpet (an industrial motif invited by Cosey Fanni Tutti, who played cornet on several TG tracks).

23 Skidoo - Vegas el Bandito 1982

Best of all is "Porno Bass", in which industrial finally makes a long-overdue explicitly anti-fascist statement. Bass drones reverberate in cavernous murk, through which drifts the aristocratic voice of the loathsome Hitler groupie Unity Mitford, taken from a radio interview. Dropped in the middle of an album that's thrillingly steeped in trance rhythms and black funk, Mitford's railings against pop music's 'senseless reiteration' as 'the sign of a degenerating race' is implicitly exposed as Aryan paranoia.

23 Skidoo - Porno Bass 1982

After an expedition to Indonesia, they recorded 1984's Urban Gamelan. The vibe is a sort of humid disquiet - imagine Apocalypse Now: The Day After.

The track "GIFU" - a different version of Skidoo's dance-floor smash "Coup" - even featured the Vietcong war-cry 'GI, fuck you', for extra anti-imperialist edge.

23 Skidoo - Coup 1984

23 Skidoo - Gifu 1984

Friday, November 18, 2011

Evolution of Throbbing Gristle

Once audience start to expect an extreme experience, though, it's time to flip the script. TG's first major swerve came shortly after Second Annual Report, an ultra lo-fi affair, recorded using a Sony tape-recorder, a single condenser microphone and an ordinary blank cassette. In contrast, the single "United" was almost glossy enough to pass for pop: this disco-inspired designed for 'people to fall in love to' (according to the Industrial press release) might have been chart material if not for its slightly defective groove and P-Orridge's runny vocals.

Throbbing Gristle - United 1978

"United" was the first in a series of danceable electropop tracks somewhere between Giorgio Moroder and Cabaret Voltaire: the pulsating porno-disco of "Hot on the Heels of Love", featuring Cosey Fanni Tutti's breathy whisper; the eerie, shimmering propulsion of "Adrenaline" and its flipside "Distant Dreams (Part Two)".

Throbbing Gristle - Hot on the Heels of Love 1979

Throbbing Gristle - Adrenaline 1980

Throbbing Gristle - Distant Dreams (Part Two) 1980

In a typical TG twist, "United" reappeared on D.o.A. speeded up so fast that its four minutes were reduced to sixteen seconds of bat-squeaky treble.

Throbbing Gristle - United (D.o.A. version) 1978

D.o.A. confounded expectations in other ways, too. It contained archetypal TG songs like "Hamburger Lady" (a nauseous churn of whimpering, agonized sound inspired by the true story of a burns victim unrecognizably charred from the waist up) but also 'solo' tracks like the Abba-meets-Kraftwerk rhapsody of Chris Carter's "AB/7A" and P-Orridge's unexpectedly plaintive and personal "Weeping", made using four different types of violin sound. 
In his most piteously crumpled voice, P-Orridge mumbles accusatory lines like 'You didn't see me weeping on the floor/You didn't see me swallowing my tablets' - a reference to his suicide attempt of November 1978, when he downed a huge quantity of antidepressants and steroids before going onstage at the Cryptic One Club, and woke up in intensive care. The target of his jabs was Cosey Fanni Tutti, who'd left him for Chris Carter, which makes "Weeping" industrial music's equivalent to Fleetwood Mac's intraband break-up anthem "Go Your Own Way".

Throbbing Gristle - AB/7A 1978

Throbbing Gristle - Weeping 1978

Fleetwood Mac - Go Your Own Way 1977

Around this time, TG embarked upon an experiment in totalitarian psychology that got a little out of hand. A ragged tribe of itinerants had set up camp in the wasteland behind their Beck Road home and a neighbourhood crime wave appeared to coincide with their arrival. Recoiling from the squalid lifestyle of the itinerants, TG nicknamed them 'subhumans'. Two singles emerged from this playing-with-fire phase. "Subhuman" featured a caravan image on its cover and lyrics like 'You make me dizzy with your disease/I want to smash you and be at ease'.

Throbbing Gristle - Subhuman 1980

"Discipline" came in two different versions. The first, recorded live at Berlin's S036 club, effectively documents the song being written onstage. Given the theme-of-the-day by Cosey a few minutes before going onstage, P-Orridge improvised a series of barked commands: 'I want some discipline in here'. Eleven minutes long, the track starts shakily, then gathers cohesion, as if undergoing the very regimentation process it proposes. The beat sounds like a jackboot moistly pulping the infirm and lowly underfoot, while gruesome shearing sounds conjure an abattoir atmosphere.

Throbbing Gristle - Discipline (Berlin) 1981

The later version, recorded in Manchester, is much tighter: P-Orridge declaims, 'Are you ready boys? Are you ready girls? We need some discipline in here' like a cross between scout leader and Fuhrer.

Throbbing Gristle - Discipline (Manchester) 1981

On the single's front cover, TG pose in front of the building that once served as the Third Reich's Ministry of Propaganda, while the flipside features the slogan 'Marching music for psychic youth'.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Throbbing Gristle: Music from the Death Factory

Industrial music is unremittingly urban, a sonic mirror to a world of dehumanizing brutality. Innocence figures only as something to be defiled. As for pastoralism, suffice to say, when Throbbing Gristle posed on an idyllic grassy cliffside overlooking the English Channel for their album 20 Jazz Funk Greats, it was a sick joke - Beach Head being a favourite leaping-point for suicides.

The song "Persuasion" was composed during a gig at Notting Hill's squat venue Centro Iberico. Just before going onstage, leader Genesis P-Orridge asked bandmate Peter 'Sleazy' Christopherson what he should sing about today and receive the reply 'persuasion' (people being cajoled into doing things - sexual things - against their will being one of Sleazy's obsessions). P-Orridge ad libbed lyrics about a guy pressurizing his partner to be photographed for the 'Readers' Wives' section of a porn mag.

Throbbing Gristle - Persuasion 1979

The 'classic' TG of "Slug Bait" and "Hamburger Lady" sounds like a corroded, ailing Tangerine Dream: cosmic rock for a universe in the process of winding down.

Throbbing Gristle - Slug Bait 1977

Throbbing Gristle - Hamburger Lady 1978

TG also made some pure, unabashed space music, like "After Cease to Exist", which took up the whole second side of the debut album Second Annual Report with its diffuse wafts of wavery-toned, early Pink Floyd/Syd Barrett guitar. It features some found speech - a pathologist discussing the murder of a teenager, a victim of a 1970s ring of homosexual paedophiles who operated in hostels for runaway boys.

Throbbing Gristle - After Cease to Exist 1977

The logo for TG's label Industrial Records was a deceptively benign-looking leafy lane with what looked like a factory at the end of it. In fact, it was a photo of Auschwitz taken by P-Orridge during a trip to Poland.

Yet, even as they made wildly melodramatic and insensitive generalizations, Throbbing Gristle also flirted with fascist imagery. The group's logo was based on the 'England Awake' lightning-flash insignia of Sir Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists.

Throbbing Gristle's logo
Insignia for the British Union of Fascists

On the flipside of TG's first single, "United", was "Zyklon B Zombie", a parody of 'blockhead punk' that imagined the ultimate punk act as sniffing Zyklon B poison gas instead than glue.

Throbbing Gristle - Zyklon B Zombie 1977

Two later singles featured Holocaust cover imagery - a towering mound of human skulls (on "Subhuman"), and walking frames taken from the elderly and the infirm before they were shunted into the death chamber (on "Distant Dreams (Part Two)").

TG's investigations into twentieth-century atrocity were studiously dispassionate. presenting the information without moral judgement. But there's a fuzzy line between anguished awareness of horror and morbid fascination - bordering on identification - with evil. TG constantly teetered on the edge.
This ambiguity became even more pronounced with TG's fixation on paedophilia and the abduction, rape and murder of children. Five months after their second album D.o.A.: The Third and Final Report of Throbbing Gristle, TG released the single "We Hate You (Little Girls", with P-Orridge practically foaming at the mouth as he shrieked lines like 'I hate you little girls/With your little curls/And your pretty dress/And your little breasts'.

Throbbing Gristle - We Hate You (Little Girls) 1979

Psychopathology fascinated TG from the start. One of their earliest pieces, "Very Friendly", concerns the mid-sixties exploits of Manchester's Ian Brady and Myra Hyndley, the infamous 'Moors Murderers', who sexually tortured and murdered children. P-Orridge's lyrics focus on the killing of a non-minor, the young homosexual Edward Evans. His attention to both the grisly details and macabre incongruities of the murder salvage "Very Friendly" from mere muck rolling - the 'German wine' with which Brady plies the hapless victim; the way blood spatters the Church of England prayer book and the TV screen image of broadcaster Eamonn Andrews; the 'bits of bone and white brain' that plop on to 'the hearth just near the brush they used to sweep the chimney, and there was lino on the floor, which was lucky'.

Throbbing Gristle - Very Friendly 1976

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Double Negative: Vic Godard and Subway Sect

"Parallel Lines", one of Vic Godard's greatest songs, comes from a similarly 'rigorously apolitical' (Howard Devoto's words) place as "Shot By Both Sides", declaring, 'Class war will never change history...we've got no belief in your truth'. Like Devoto, Godard seemed non-aligned: the outsider as acute, unforgiving observer.

Subway Sect - Parallel Lines 1981

He wasn't scared to tackle weighty subjects: predestination, in the awesomely clangorous "Chain Smoking"; media mind-control and the corruption of language in "Nobody's Scared", which starts with the salvo 'Everyone is a prostitute/Singing the song in prison'.

Subway Sect - Chain Smoking 1977

Subway Sect - Nobody's Scared 1978

"Double Negative" was his passive-aggressive answer, close in spirit to Devoto's concept of 'negative drive'. Then there were the meta-rock anthems, critique with a beat, like "Don't Split It", which famously proclaimed 'Don't want to play rock 'n' roll'.

Subway Sect - Double Negative 1978

Subway Sect - Don't Split It 1978

"A Different Story" was a blistering critique of rock as the opiate of the (young) people. 'We've just been waiting for it to fall/We oppose all rock 'n' roll', sings Godard. Only cowardice, the song argues, prevents us all from stepping of the beaten track of rock's twenty-year-old narrative and entering some kind of new cultural space. Ironically, by the time "A Different Story" was recorded as the flipside of their second single "Ambition", it had become their most traditional rock-sounding song.

Subway Sect - A Different Story 1978

Dissatisfied with the recording of "Ambition", just one of many Subway Sect songs languishing in the can, the band's manager Bernie Rhodes - in the band's absence - sped it up and added a clumsy synth-line, making an already Who-like anthem sound even more like "Baba O'Riley" or "Won't Get Fooled Again".

Subway Sect - Ambition 1978

The Who - Baba O'Riley 1971

The Who - Won't Get Fooled Again 1971

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Howard Devoto and Magazine's first three albums

With Iggy Pop's The Idiot, released in early 1977, Buzzcocks co-founder Howard Devoto loved the sonorous Sinatra-esque croon Pop had developed. 'You really started to hear the richness of his voice, and when I later tried singing in a low register on Magazine songs like "Motorcade", that was definitely me trying to emulate Iggy a little'.

Magazine - Motorcade 1978

Describing the track "Breakdown" on the Buzzcocks' debut EP Spiral Scratch, the singer archly compared the paranoid protagonist with 'Dostoevsky's underground man or any of them existentialist'. A few years later he'd condense Notes from the Underground into the pop single "A Song from under the Floorboards".

Buzzcocks - Breakdown 1977

Magazine - A Song from under the Floorboards 1980

Everything was building towards a crescendo, and "Shot by Both Sides", Magazine's debut single, rose to the occasion. The riff, originally written by Buzzcocks' guitar player Pete Shelley, had the ringing grandeur of Springsteen's "Born to Run". "Shot" sounded like an anthem, but its emotional core was the opposite of everything anthems stood for: battle-shy and non-committal, it was a clarion for all those who refused calls to solidarity or partisanship.
Without specifically referring to any of the great divisive issues of late seventies Britain (Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League versus the resurgent far right; the collectivist left that was taking over the Labour Party versus the pro-entrepreneur right wing that dominated the Conservative Party), "Shot" captures the era's sense of dreadful polarization, and the vacillation of those caught in the cross-fire with the centre ground disappearing beneath their feet. It is about a non-combatant, an inactivist. It's a defense of the bourgeois art-rock notion that the individual's struggle to be different is what really matters.

Magazine - Shot by Both Sides 1978

It's tempting to read "Shot" as an answer record to Tom Robinson Band's "Better Decide Which Side You're On". Constantly playing benefit gigs, providing info and contacts for various worthy causes on their record sleeves, TRB were icons of radical chic for all who'd hoped something constructive would emerge out of punk.

Tom Robinson Band - Better Decide Which Side You're On 1978

In "Shot by Both Sides" you also get a sense of Devoto recoiling from the rabble-rousing vulgarity that typified most punk gigs by the middle of 1977. The song's key lines are 'I wormed my way into the heart of the crowd/I was shocked by what was allowed/I didn't lose myself in the crowd'. In this respect, "Shot" could also be seen as a riposte in advance to Sham 69's "If the Kids Are United", a massive mid-1978 hit.

Sham 69 - If the Kids Are United 1978

On the brink of the Top 40, Magazine were invited to appear on Top of the Pops. At the last minute, Devoto decided to make a gesture that would indicate his disdain for the the corny charade. 'I didn't want to jump around in an obedient, "here's your entertainment" way. I wanted to be bloody-minded, but in a fairly understated way'. He got the BBC make-up girl to do him up in a whiteface, but instead of a striking glam alien, 'he looked like Marcel Marceau', recalls NME writer Paul Morley. 'And then Devoto decided, because his mind was racing so quick, that he was far ahead of the game and he'd just be still. Very, very still. And this great song was playing, but Devoto stood stock-still. And the next week the record went down the charts and from then on, everything shut down. Killed stone dead.'

Magazine - Shot by Both Sides (Top of the Pops performance) 1978

Following the unexpected failure of their most singular single, Magazine fell back on the prog-rock approach of slow-and-steady career building through albums and touring. 'Prog' was the invidious reference point brandished in the inevitable critical backlash that greeted 1979's Secondhand Daylight

Densely produced and overwrought, Secondhand Daylight still contained at least one masterpiece in 'Permafrost', a deliberately sluggish tune whose highlights include Barry Adamson's glutinous bassline, an angular solo from guitarist John McGeoch worthy of Bowie's Lodger, and Devoto's most quoted couplet: 'I will drug you and fuck you/On the permafrost'.

Magazine - Permafrost 1979

Magazine's third album, 1980's The Correct Use of Soap, received a warmer greeting: it was hailed, correctly, as the band's masterpiece. Devoto's lyrics drew inspiration from an idea he'd found in a book of essays on love and lust by Theodor Reik - the notion that you are particularly vulnerable to falling in love after you've experienced some kind of trauma or life crisis.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Fall's peak: Grotesque and Hex Enduction Hour

Grotesque offered a modern-day hallucinatory equivalent to Hogarth's caricatures of the English lower classes taking their pleasures, an idea pursued further on such singles as "Lie Dream of the Casino Soul", a critique of the Northern Soul scene.

The Fall - Lie Dream of the Casino Soul 1981

On "I'm Into CB", for instance, Smith method-acts the role of a hapless radio ham (codename Happy Harry) who still lives with his parents: "My father's not bad really/He got me these wires and bits/Apart that he talks to me hardly".

The Fall - I'm Into CB 1982

For the NME's Barney Hoskyns, this era of Fallmusic - bookended by Grotesque and the mini-LP Slates - threw the listener into deraging 'wastelands of sound without themes, messages, or politics. These records were politics, living conjurations of the crass and the grotesque in Northern prole life ... What The Fall's music implied was that the whole bastion of comfortable working-class traditions - the institutions of barbiturates, boozing, and bingo - could be transformed, could even transform themselves, into a deep cultural revolution". 

Smith had broached this notion in the sleevenotes to Totale's Turns, a sort of live greatest hits. Alluding to the Northern circuit of working men's clubs where The Fall played early on for lack of other opportunities, he speculated wildly: "Maybe one day a Northern sound will emerge not tied to that death-circuit attitude of merely reiterating movements based in the capital".

This fantasy scenario inspired Grotesque's epic closing track 'The N.W.R.A.', which stands for "North Will Rise Again". 'It's just like a sort of document of a revolution that could happen - like somebody writing a book about what would have happened if the Nazis had invaded Britain', Smith told the NME.

The Fall - The N.W.R.A. 1981

Reading speedfreak science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick gave Smith concepts like like 'pre-cog' and 'psychic time travel'. The latter informed the song "Wings", during which he recruits gremlins and goes back through a 'timelock' into the 1860s.

The Fall - Wings 1983

A teenage phase of bumping into ghosts while out walking inspired songs like "Spectre Vs. Rector" and "Elves", in which Smith shrieks, 'The fantastic is in league against me!'

The Fall - Spectre Vs. Rector 1979

The Fall - Elves 1984

The culmination of The Fall's fascination with the supernatural came with 1982's Hex Enduction Hour, half of which was recorded in Iceland, a country where most of the population still believes in elves.

The track "Iceland" was improvised in a Reykjavik studio with lava walls, the band oozing out a drone of two-note piano cycles and banjo that sounded like sitar, topped with incantations from Smith about casting 'runes against your self-soul'.

The Fall - Iceland 1982

Hex is The Fall at their most forbidding and primordial. On "Just Step S'Ways", the group's two-drummer line-up brings a new polyrhythmic tumultuousness to the band's juggernaut rumble.

The Fall - Just Step S'Ways 1982

"Hip Priest" has an almost jazz-like swing, while the guitars on "Who Makes the Nazis?" sound like flint shards hewn from a mountain face. And in case you are wondering who makes those Nazis, it's 'intellectual halfwits'. Ouch!

The Fall - Hip Priest 1982

The Fall - Who Makes the Nazis? 1982

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Manchester's other bands: The Durutti Column, A Certain Ratio and The Passage

Guitarist Vini Reilly had gone AWOL from normal life. He suffered from anorexia nervosa, and his music sounded as translucent as you'd expect from someone with almost no flesh: intricate skeins of guitar fed through an echoplex and always played with the fingertips, delicate and prismatic, like Jack Frost on a window pane. On the second Durutti Column album, 1981's LC, Reilly recorded a tribute to Ian Curtis, but the song, "Missing Boy", could just as easily have been about himself.

Durutti Column - Missing Boy 1981

Heard best on the early single "Flight" and the live side of their debut album The Graveyard & The Ballroom, A Certain Ratio's music worked through the tension between dry funk (rimshot cracks and feverish snares, neurotic bass, itchy rhythm guitar) and dank atmospherics (trumpet that seems to drift through fog, diffuse smears of guitar so heavily processed it sounds more like synth).

A Certain Ratio - Flight 1980

Formerly a classically trained percussionist, The Passage's leader Dick Witts built dense, dramatic arrangements that were stirringly rhythmical but not in the least rock-like. "We used bell sounds, military sounds like trumpet fanfares, brass and trumpets - anything that suggested things outside rock", he says. Matching the epic sound was a thematic loftiness verging on the didactic: "Devils and Angels" railed against organized religion, while "XOYO" obliquely explored gender politics.

The Passage - Devils and Angels 1981

The Passage - XOYO 1982

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Joy Division - Unknown Pleasures & Closer

Released at the height of British summertime - June 1979 - the album caught the eye as well as the ear: the cover, designed by Factory's art director Peter Saville, was a matt-black void apart from a small scientific diagram of rippling lines whose crinkled crests and sharp slopes resemble the outlines of a mountain range. Joy Division's guitarist Barney Sumner had found the diagram in the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Science: it's a Fourier analysis of 1000 consecutive light spasms emitted by the pulsar CP 1919. Left behind when a massive sun exhausts its fuel and collapses in on itself, a pulsar is highly electromagnetic and emits regular flashes of intense energy, like a lighthouse in the pitch-black night. Perhaps that's how Ian Curtis was beginning to see himself - as a magnetic star sending out a signal, a beacon in the darkness.

With its vast drumscape, permafrost synths and cascading chimes, "Atmosphere", Joy Division's breathtaking next single, sound like nothing else in rock, except maybe some dream collaboration between Nico and Phil Spector.

Joy Division - Atmosphere 1980

The image on the single - a hooded monk, his back turned to the viewer, stalking a snow-covered Alpine peak - captures the moment when a certain religiosity began to gather around Joy Division.

A 'strange social climate' (as Hannett put it) surrounded the March 1980 sessions for Closer, Joy Division's second album. Hannett described the record as 'kabbalistic, locked in its own mysterious world'. The sleeve featured a photograph taken in a Genoa cemetry, a sculpted tableau of the dead Christ surrounded by grief-stricken mourners.

Compared with Unknown Pleasures, the textures of Closer are more ethereal and experimental: bassist Peter Hook often used a six-string bass, for more melody, while Sumner built a couple of synthesizers from kits. Morris had acquired a drum synth and fed it through 'the shittiest fuzz pedal you can imagine' to generate the slaughterhouse of hacking and shearing, metal-on-bone noise in the background of "Atrocity Exhibition", Closer's opener.

Joy Division - Atrocity Exhibition 1980

Listening to Closer, it's like you are inside Curtis' head, feeling the awful down-swirling drag of terminal depression. Side one is all agony: the swarming knives of "Atrocity"; the ice-shroud glaze of "Isolation" - Curtis swathed in a barbiturate haze, his voice mineralized by Hannett's effects. The treadmill motion of "Passover" sounds like the group's batteries are running down. It's followed by the tough, punitive rock of "Colony" and "A Means to an End", in which the drums finally decelerate like a dying machine.

Joy Division - Isolation 1980

Joy Division - Passover 1980

Joy Division - Colony 1980

Joy Division - A Means to an End 1980

Closer's second side is even more disturbing, but this time on account of its serenity. It's as though Curtis has stopped struggling altogether: the numb trance and narcotic glide of "Heart and Soul"; the alternately desperate and resigned "Twenty-Four Hours", its beautiful bass like the pulse of a heavy heart, Curtis's voice disconcertingly deep, like the microphone is right inside his chest; the epic colonnades of "The Eternal", seen through misty eyes, as if Curtis is watching his own funeral procession; finally the listless, clip-clop beat of "Decades", its synths eroded and washed out, like aged Super-8 home movies of happy childhood memories.

Joy Division - Heart and Soul 1980

Joy Division - Twenty-Four Hours 1980

Joy Division - The Eternal 1980

Joy Division - Decades 1980

The last lyric Curtis ever finished, "In a Lonely Place", featured a death-wish reference to 'caressing the marble and stone'. The crisis came on 18 May 1980. After visiting his estranged wife and asking, unsuccessfully, for her to drop the divorce, Curtis stayed up all night, watching a movie by his favourite director Werner Herzog and listening to Iggy Pop's The Idiot. Finally, he hung himself as 'that awful daylight' ("In a Lonely Place") approached.

Joy Division - In a Lonely Place 1980

Saville gave the posthumous single "Love Will Tear Us Apart" an exquisite abstract cover that looked like the lustrous stone interior of a cenotaph. The song became Joy Division's first chart hit.

Curtis's crooning vocal, Hook's bass and Sumner's keyboard trace in unison the same shy, crestfallen melody, while Morris's drumming skitters with feathery unrest. On "Love Will Tear Us Apart" and its savage B-side, "These Days", the singer and the music both sound raw and exposed, like they've got no skin. The words are laceratingly candid glimpses into a dying relationship, snapshots of bad sex and broken trust. Although the marriage break-up was only one factor, "Love Will Tear Us Apart" was taken as Curtis's suicide note to the public: the official explanation.

Joy Division - Love Will Tear Us Apart 1980

Joy Division - These Days 1980

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Joy Division and Martin Hannett's production

Joy Division began life as Warsaw - to most contemporary ears, a fairly undistinguished, punk-inflected hard-rock band. "Digital", the group's first recording as Joy Division, sounds not a million miles from Black Sabbath's "Paranoid": a dark, fast pummel, a full-tilt dirge fusing pace and ponderousness.

Joy Division - Digital 1978

Black Sabbath - Paranoid 1970

Joy Division's use of Nazi imagery stemmed from morbid fascination; and as such, was often in questionable taste. On the mini-album Short Circuit: Live at the Electric Circus - a document of the Manchester punk scene - singer Ian Curtis can be heard screaming at the crowd, 'Do you all remember Rudolf Hess?'

Joy Division - At A Later Date (from Short Circuit: Live at the Electric Circus) 1978

In June 1978 the group self-released their first record, the Warsaw EP An Ideal for Living. The sleeve featured a drawing of a blond-haired Hitler Youth drummer boy and a photograph of a German stormtrooper pointing a gun at a small Polish Jewish boy.

Curtis was also intrigued by the mass psychology of fascism - the way a charismatic leader could bewitch an entire population into doing, or accepting, irrational and monstrous things. The early song "Walked in Line" is about those who just did what they were told, committing crimes in a 'hypnotic trance'.

Joy Division - Walked in Line 1979

Curtis' doomy baritone and obsession with the dark side often got him compared to Jim Morrison. Indeed, The Doors were one of the singer's favourite bands. Joy Division's "Shadowplay" is like "LA Woman" turned inside out, the latter's rolling, virile propulsion reduced to a bleak transit across a city that could hardly be less like sun-baked southern California.

Joy Division - Shadowplay 1979

The Doors - LA Woman 1971

"Digital", Martin Hannett's first Joy Division production, was titled after his favourite sonic toy, the AMS digital delay line. His most distinctive use of the AMS digital delay was subtle, though: he applied a micro-second delay to the drums that was barely audible but which created a sense of enclosed space - a vaulted sound, like the music was recorded in a mausoleum. Hannett also wove subliminal shimmers deep into the recesses of Joy Division's records. And he loved the occasional extreme effect: on the debut Unknown Pleasures, he miked up the clanking of an antique lift for "Insight" and incorporated smashing glass on "I Remember Nothing".

Joy Division - Insight 1979

Joy Division - I Remember Nothing 1979

Hannett demanded totally clear and clean 'sound separation', not just for individual instruments, but for each element of the drum kit. "Typically on tracks he considered to be potential singles, he'd get me to play each drum on its own to avoid any bleed-through of sound", sighs drummer Stephen Morris. "First the bass-drum part. Then the snare part. Then the high hats". Not only was this tediously protracted; it created a mechanistic, disjointed effect. "The natural way to play drums is all at the same time. So I'd end up with my legs black and blue 'cos I'd be tapping on them quietly to do the other bits of the kit that he wasn't recording". 
This dehumanizing treatment - essentially turning Morris into a drum machine - was typical of Hannett's rather high-handed attitude to musicians. But the disjointedness certainly added to the music's alienated feel. You can hear it on one of the high points of the Hannett-Joy Division partnership, "She's Lost Control", with its mechano-disco drum loop, tom-toms like ball-bearings, a bassline like steel cable undulating in strict time, and a guitar like a contained explosion - as if the track's only real rock-out element has been cordoned off.

Joy Division - She's Lost Control 1979