Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Lo-fi electronic music

In mid-1978, a curious spate of cultural synchronicity found "Warm Leatherette" being released at around the same time as several other lo-fi electronic singles, all put out on indie labels: Throbbing Gristle's "United", Cabatet Voltaire's Extended Play EP, Human League's "Being Boiled", Robert Rental's "Paralysis" and Thomas Leer's "Private Plane".
"There was this period when they all came out, one after the other", recalls Leer. "And it was like, 'Where are all these weird records coming from?' None of us knew each other. There was obviously something brewing."
Actually, Thomas Leer and Robert Rental did know each other. Two Scottish friends who'd moved down to London at the height of punk, Leer and Rental, like Miller, were inspired to put out their own records by the Desperate Bicycles' example.

Throbbing Gristle - United - 1978

Cabaret Voltaire - Do the Mussolini - 1978

The Human League - Being Boiled - 1978

Robert Rental - Paralysis - 1978

"Private Plane" sounded electronic, but Leer didn't actually own a synth. Instead he processed his guitar and bass using various gadgets and played Rental's stylophone (a gimmicky electronic keyboard played with a pen) through an echo effect. All these gauzy silverswirl textures gave "Private Plane" an ethereal feel perfect for its mood of remote serenity tinged with wistfulness, loosely inspired by a recent TV program about the reclusive multimillionaire Howard Hughes. Leer's fey voice is equally perfect, but owed something to contingency: he had to whisper the vocal because the recording took place at night in his one-room apartment and he didn't want to wake his girlfriend.

Thomas Leer - Private Plane - 1978

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Normal - Warm Leatherette

Working in his North London bedroom, Daniel Miller, aka the Normal, created "T.V.O.D." and "Warm Leatherette", the two sides of his self-released debut single as the Normal.
The Normal's sound was electropunk. "Warm Leatherette" especially - all harsh stabs of analog-synth distortion and dispassionately perverse lyrics about the eroticism of car accidents, via Ballard's Crash - could hardly have been further from the floridly romantic keyboard synth arpeggios of prog rock.
The single did unexpectedly well, selling thirty thousand copies, and inadvertently turned Miller into the CEO of his own record label. Mute Records was the name he'd put on the back of the single, along with his home address. Many people assumed Mute was a proper record label specializing in weird electropop. Within a week of the release of "Warm Leatherette" all kind of peculiar demo tapes started arriving in the mail.

The Normal - Warm Leatherette - 1978

The Normal - T.V.O.D. - 1978

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Desperate Bicycles

DIY's most fervent evangelists, the Desps chanted "it was easy, it was cheap - go and do it" at the end of their early 1977 debut "Smokescreen". That slogan then became the chorus of "The Medium Was Tedium", the follow-up released later that same year. "No more time for spectating", they declared on "Don't Back the Front", an antifascist anthem on the flip side of "Medium", adding the listener-inciting battle cry "cut it, press it, distribute it/Xerox music's here at last". A sleeve note revealed that "Smokescreen had cost only £ 153 and said the band "would really like to know why you haven't made your single yet".
As for the Desps' actual music, it was almost puritan in its unadorned simplicity, its guitar sound frugal to the point of emaciation. For the Desperate Bicycles, it was as though sloppiness and scrawniness became signs of membership in the true punk elect. The very deficiency of traditional rock virtues (tightness, feel) stood as tokens of the group's authenticity and purity of intent.

The Desperate Bicycles - Smokescreen - 1977

The Desperate Bicycles - The Medium Was Tedium - 1977

The Desperate Bicycles - Don't Back the Front - 1977

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Factory Records

The label's first release, A Factory Sample, was a double EP packaged in glistening silver. "It just seemed so special", says Paul Morley, who was NME's Manchester correspondent at the time. "The fact that it was so beautiful looking showed the possibilities of what could be done, and it showed up the London record industry for being so boring".
Soon Factory was outdoing Fast Product's collectible Earcom samplers and bizarre packages like Quality of Life by bringing a Marcel Duchamp-like absurdism to their catalog. Numbers were assigned to anything and everything: pipe dreams, whims, unrealized projects, movies that were never finished or never started.
Fac 8 was a menstrual egg timer proposed by Linder but never actually constructed. Fac 99 was a dental bill for Factory codirector Rob Gretton, who'd had his molars reconstructed. Fac 61 was a lawsuit from the label's former house producer Martin Hannett.

The Secret Public - 1977

Released at the very end of 1977, almost a full year after Spiral Scratch, ORG-2 wasn't even a record, but a booklet of collages by Linder (singer in the band Ludus) and Jon Savage (journalist for Sounds magazine). "It didn't have a cover price, so it didn't sell very well. Nobody knew what to sell it for!" laughs Boon. "But it did its job. The title The Secret Public was all about that other side of the DIY thing - trying to locate kindred spirits who would 'get it' and respond".

(Scans taken from:

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Buzzcocks - Spiral Scratch EP

There are people who will say in all earnestness that the Buzzcocks EP Spiral Scratch was a more epochal punk single than "Anarchy in the UK". Released in January 1977 on the Buzzcocks' own New Hormones label, the EP wasn't the first independently released record, not by a long stretch, but it was the first to make a real polemical point about independence. In the process, Spiral Scratch inspired thousands of people to play the do-it-yourself/release-it-yourself game.
Spiral Scratch was simultaneously a regionalist blow against the capital (Manchester versus London) and a conceptual exercise in demystification ("spiral scratch", because that's what a record materially is, a spiral groove scratched into vinyl).
The back cover itemized details of the recording process, such as which take of the songs they'd used and the number of overdubs. The EP's catalog number, ORG-1, was a Left-leaning bookworm's wisecrack: ORG-1 = ORG ONE = orgone, Wilhelm Reich's neurolibidinous life force.
"Spiral Scratch was playful", says Buzzcocks manager Richard Boon. "Play was very important". That spirit came through in the EP's most famous song, "Boredom", which was simultaneously an expression of real ennui ("I'm living in this movie/but it doesn't move me") and a metapop comment on boredom as a prescribed subject for punk songs and punk-related media discourse - a topic that was predictable to the point of being, well, a bit boring.
Pete Shelley's deliberately inane two-note guitar solo sealed the conceptual deal: a "boring" solo that was actually thrillingly tension inducing in its fixated refusal to go anywhere melodically.

The Buzzcocks - Boredom - 1977

Saturday, August 20, 2011

PiL - Public Image (First Issue) - Side B

If side one of Public Image was loosely themed around religion, the more accessible second side was largely concerned with the tribulations of being the punk messiah.
"Low Life" fingered McLaren (Malcolm, Sex Pistols' manager) as the "egomaniac trainer/traitor" who "never did understand", while the foaming paranoia of "Attack" showed that the mental scars from summer 1977, when Lydon was U.K. Public Enemy Number One, were still livid.
What's striking in retrospect about PiL's debut is that, for all the rhetoric about being antirock, a hefty proportion of Public Image actually rocks hard. Combining raw power and uncanny dubspace, "Low Life" and "Attack" sound like Never Mind the Bollocks might have if Lydon's reggae-and-Krautrock sensibility had prevailed.

PiL - Low Life - 1978

Pil - Attack - 1978

As often happens with bands commited to progression, the most extreme track on the preceding album is the springboard for the next. On one level, "Fodderstompf" was a throwaway, an extended disco spoof, almost a parody of Donna Summer's "Love to Love You Baby", with Lydon the antisentimentalist taking the piss out of romance, affection, committment.

Donna Summer - Love to Love You Baby - 1975

On "Fodderstompf" Lydon and Wobble yowl "we only wanted to be loved" into an echo chamber using shrill Monty Python-style housewife voices, ad-lib insults at the studio engineer behind the glass, blast a fire extinguisher at the mike, and generally goof off.
"Me and John, I think we'd had a bit of wine or whatever that night", chuckles Wobble. The track runs for almost eight minutes because its raison d'etre was to fulfill the minimum album length of thirty minutes stipulated by the band's contract.
In a pointed fuck-you to Virgin, and arguably to the record buyer too, Wobble at one point warbles, "We are now trying to finish the album with a minimum amount of effort which we are now doing very suc-cess-ful-leeee". Says Wobble, "It was this confrontational thing, a real mickey take on the record company".
Yet musically the track is the most compelling thing on the debut. Its hypnotic dub-funk bassline, subliminal synth burbles, and monstrous snare sound (drastically processed and absurdly prominent in the mix) look ahead to 1979's Metal Box, on which the group would fully embrace the studio-as-instrument methodology of disco and dub.
"People loved that track", says Wobble. "It's got quite a sense of anarchy. In its own way, it's as mental as Funkadelic. And it had the perfect funk bassline".

PiL - Fodderstompf - 1978

Friday, August 19, 2011

PiL - Public Image (First Issue) - Side A

Lydon and his colleagues overhauled their image, purging anything redolent of punk clich├ęs and instead wearing tailored suits. This anti-rock 'n' roll image culminated with Dennis Morris's artwork for PiL's debut album, fashion-magazine-style portraits of each member of the group, immaculately coutured and coiffed. Lydon appeared on the front under italian Vogue lettering, while the reverse saw Wobble sporting a debonair 1920s lounge lizard mustache.
The album was uncompromising, throwing the listener in at the deep end with the nine-minute death wish dirge "Theme", a near cacophony of suicidal despair and Catholic guilt, with Lydon howling about masturbation as mortal sin.
It was nothing if not an orgy of twisted guitar virtuosity, Levene generating an astonishing amount of sound from a single guitar.

Pil- Theme - 1978

Next up was the anticlerical doggerel of "Religion I"/"Religion II" (a blasphemous ditty written for the Pistols and originally titled "Sod in Heaven"), followed by the hacking thrash funk of "Annalisa", the true story of a German girl who starved to death because her parents believed she was possessed by the devil and turned to the church rather than psychiatrists for help.

PiL - Religion I - 1978

PiL - Religion II - 1978

PiL - Annalisa - 1978

PiL - Public Image

Given Lydon's initial talk of PiL as antimusic and antimelody, the group's debut single, "Public Image", was a massive relief for all concerned-the record company, Pistols fans, and critics. It's a searing, soaring statement of intent.
The glorious, chiming minimalism of Wobble's bassline and Levene's plangent, ringing chords mirror Lydon's quest for purity as he jettisons not just the Rotten alter ego ("somebody had to stop me/...I will not be treated as property") but rock 'n' roll itself.
"That song was the first proper bassline I ever came up with", says Wobble. "Very simple, a beautiful interval from E to B. Just the joy of vibration. And incredible guitar from Keith, this great burst of energy."
"Public Image" is like a blueprint for the reborn, purified rock of the 1980s. One can hear the Edge from U2 in its radiant surge. "It's so clean, so tingly, like a cold shower", says Levene. "It could be really thin glass penetrating you but you don't know until you start bleeding internally".
In "Public Image" Lydon reasserted his rights over "Johnny Rotten"-"Public image belongs to me/It's my entrance, my own creation, my grand finale"-only to end the song by shedding the persona with an echo chamber yell of "goodbye!"

PiL - Public Image - 1978

Thursday, August 18, 2011

John Lydon surprises listeners during his radio show "The Punk and His Music" - 1977

Those who tuned in anticipating punk rock were immediately thrown for a loop by the first selection, Tim Buckley's "Sweet Surrender", a lush, sensual R&B song swathed with orchestral strings.
When he talked about identifying with Dr. Alimantado's "Born for a Purpose", a song about being persecuted as a Rasta, Lydon gave his audience an advance glimpse of PiL's aura of paranoia and prophecy, casting himself as a visionary outcast in Babylon, U.K.

Tim Buckley - Sweet Surrender - 1972

Dr. Alimantado - Born for a Purpose - 1976

Critiques and manifestos

Aiming to break the trance of rock-business-as-normal and jolt the listener into awareness, postpunk teemed with metamusic critiques and mini-manifestos, songs such as the Television Personalities' "Part Time Punks" and Subway Sect's "A Different Story" that addressed punk's failure or speculated about the future.

Television Personalities - Part Time Punks - 1978

Subway Sect - A Different Story - 1978

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Nuclear anxiety

Singles like Kate Bush's "Breathing" and UB40's "The Earth Dies Screaming" brought nuclear anxiety into the Top 20, and countless postpunks, from This Heat on their concept album Deceit to Young Marble Giants with their classic single "Final Day", sang about Armageddon as a real prospect, impending and imminent.

Kate Bush - Breathing - 1980

UB40 - The Earth Dies Screaming - 1980

This Heat - Makeshift Swahili - 1981

Young Marble Giants - Final Day - 1980

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Kraftwerk - Trans-Europe Express & Donna Summer - I Feel Love

For many of the postpunk persuasion, 1977's most significant singles weren't "White Riot" or "God Save the Queen", but "Trans-Europe Express", a metronomic, metal-on-metal threnody for the industrial era by the German band Kraftwerk, and Donna Summer's Eurodisco smash "I Feel Love", made almost entirely from synthetic sounds by producer Giorgio Moroder, an Italian based in Munich.
Kraftwerk's serene synthpop conjured glistening visions of the Neu Europa-modern, forward-looking, and pristinely postrock in the sense of having virtually no debts to American music.

Kraftwerk - Trans-Europe Express - 1977

Donna Summer - I Feel Love - 1977

Monday, August 15, 2011

Sex Pistols - Johnny B. Goode

Perhaps the first example of Berry-phobia occurs as early as the Sex Pistols demos exhumed on The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle. The band begins jamming on "Johnny B. Goode". Johnny Rotten-the group's closet aesthete, who'd go on to form the archetypal postpunk outfit Public Image Ltd-halfheartedly jabbers the tune and then groans, "Oh fuck, it's awful. Stop it, I fucking hate it. Aaarrrgh".

Sex Pistols - Johnny B. Goode - 1976

Devo - Jocko Homo & Mongoloid

I'd never heard anything so creepy and debased as their early single "Jocko Homo" and its flip side, "Mongoloid", brought around our house by a far more advanced friend.

Devo - Jocko Homo - 1977

Devo - Mongoloid - 1977

Sex Pistols - Bodies

The profanity hooked me first (I was fourteen), Johnny Rotten's "fuck this and fuck that/Fuck it all and fuck her fucking brat". More than the naughty words themselves, it was the vehemence and virulence of Rotten's delivery-those percussive "fucks", the demonic glee of the rolled rs in "brrrrrrat".

Sex Pistols - Bodies - 1977

Sex Pistols - God Save the Queen

The Sex Pistols swearing on television, "God Save the Queen" versus the Royal Jubilee, an entire culture convulsed and quaking-I simply did not notice.

Sex Pistols - Bill Grundy Interview - 1976

Sex Pistols - God Save the Queen - Live on Boat Trip Queen's Jubilee - 1977

Scenes from Rip It Up and Start Again - An introduction

Today I started reading Simon Reynolds' book "Rip It Up And Start Again - Post Punk 1978-1984". From the first pages I noticed that there was something missing: I had never heard the majority of the bands or songs he was talking about and therefore could only have a partial comprehension of the music the author described. That's how I had the idea to start this project, with the aim to provide readers with an useful audiovisual companion while reading the book.
Each day I will post audio and video links of the music Reynolds describes in his book, together with some quotes from "Rip It Up And Start Again". Hopefully, this will allow readers to have a better understanding of the music that is so thoroughly described in the book.