Thursday, September 29, 2011

The early sounds of The Human League

With singer Philip Oakey on board, the Human League shifted decisively in a pop direction with songs like "Dance Like a Star", a lo-fi, cobbled-together counterpart to Summer and Moroder's "I Feel Love". At the start of the song, Oakey taunts, "This is a song for all you bigheads out there who think disco music is lower than the irrelevant musical gibberish and tired platitudes that you try to impress your parents with. We're the Human League, we're much cleverer than you, and this is called 'Dance Like a Star'".

The Human League - Dance Like A Star 1977

The Human League's debut single "Being Boiled" was released in June 1978 with the slogan "Electronically yours" on its cover.

Philip K. Dick's influence is all over early Human League. "Circus of Death", the B-side of their debut single, was partly inspired by Ubik, while "Almost Medieval" from the first album, Reproduction, is based on Counter-Clock World, a novel in which time goes backward.
"Circus of Death" was once described by Human League co-founder Martyn Ware as "a subliminal trip through all the very trashiest films". The story involves an evil clown who runs a nightmare circus and uses the sinister mind control drug Dominion to pacify the population, with Steve McGarrett from american tv series Hawaii Five-O flying in to the rescue.

The Human League - Circus of Death 1978

The Human League - Almost Medieval 1979

As part of their newfound appreciation for conveyor belt pop and epic schmaltz, the Human League started to work up all-electronic cover versions of sixties classics like the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling". That song was both a crowd-pleaser and a striking gesture, almost transgressive. "No one did covers really. During punk, you were supposed to do original material", says Human League co-founder Ian Craig Marsh.

The Human League - You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling 1979

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The early recordings of Cabaret Voltaire

You can hear a Burroughsian influence - the flat, matter-of-fact depiction of extreme and grotesque acts of sex and violence - in the spoken-word voice-overs that accompany some early Cabaret Voltaire pieces, such as the fetid imagery of "Bed Time Stories": "With dogs that are trained to sniff out corpses/Eat my remains but leave my feet/I'll hold a séance with Moroccan rapists/Masturbating end over end".

Cabaret Voltaire - Bed Time Stories 1974

Creaky and homespun, the Cabs' early stabs at musique concrète, such as "Dream Sequence Number Two Ethel's Voice", have an alien-yet-quaint quality, while more ferocious tracks like "Henderson Reversed Piece Two", all rattling, synthetic percussion and soiled sheets of sound, recall avant-classical electronic composers such as Morton Subotnick.

Cabaret Voltaire - Henderson Reversed Piece Two 1974

Monday, September 26, 2011

Devo & the video for "Whip It"

The band moved to Los Angeles, capital of the entertainment business, and with 1980's Freedom of Choice made a record even more calculatedly commercial than the clinical-sounding Duty. This gave Devo their own platinum album, spurred on by the Top 20 success of "Whip It".

Written during the ailing twilight of the Carter presidency, "Whip It" offered Dale Carnegie-style advice to the embattled leader. "Come on Jimmy, get your shit together", laughs Mothersbaugh. By the time Warner Brothers allowed Devo to make a promo clip for the song, it was clear that Reagan was heading for a landslide victory. Devo made the video into a surreal commentary on America's shift to the Right. The result was a video that twenty-five years later is not the least bit dated looking and is still a huge hoot. It was Devo's one true moment of mass-cultural triumph.
Pitched somewhere between a John Ford Western and David Lynch's Eraserhead, the genuinely creepy video for "Whip It" perfectly cristallizes Devo's "freak show aesthetic". As a bunch of Texas stud muffins and blonde bimbos gawk and giggle, Mothersbaugh wields a whip and one by one lashes away the garments of a strange Grace Jones-like amazon of a woman, whose legs start trembling in an indescribably abject way as she waits for the final whip crack to strip off her last shred of modesty. Meanwhile, the rest of Devo performs the song cooped inside a cattle pen - pasty-faced spud-boys wearing shorts that show off their scrawny knees and the famous "flowerpot hats". "We were horrified by Reagan's ascent", says Casale, "So we were just making fun of myths of cowboys in the West".

Devo - Whip It 1980

As the new decade progressed, the original "eighties industrial band" got chewed up by the industry. Even as they railed against Reaganism with songs like "Freedom of Choice" and "Through Being Cool", Devo found themselves increasingly bossed around by their record company.

Devo - Freedom of Choice 1980

Devo - Through Being Cool 1981

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Devo - Duty Now for the Future

An icky squeamishness contaminated Devo's sex songs, from their earliest efforts like "Buttered Beauties" (in which Mothersbaugh imagines female secretions smeared all over him like "glossy tallow"), to the chorus "I think I missed the hole" in the debut album's "Sloppy (I Saw My Baby Gettin')". They loved pornography, whether it was Bataille's avant-garde version or Hustler's mass-market hardcore. "I wrote a song called 'Penetration in the Centerfold' about the first Hustler I ever saw", says Mothersbaugh.

Devo - Sloppy (Single version) 1977

Devo - Penetration in the Centerfold 1979

What emerged from these impulses and inputs were songs that, beneath the quirky Dada surface, were often plain misogynistic in the most conventional sense. On the debut, "Gut Feeling" segues straight into "Slap Your Mammy", while "Triumph of the Will" on the second album, Duty Now for the Future, reads like a Nietzschean justification for rape: "It was a thing I had to do/It was a message from below...It is a thing females ask for/When they convey the opposite".

Devo - Triumph of the Will 1979

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Devo's first singles and debut album "Q: Are We Not Men? A: We are Devo!"

As expressed in the anthem "Be Stiff", Devo's proudly neurotic, uptight attitude was a revolt against the take-it-easy baby boomers. "We were anything but hippies - loose, natural", Devo founder Gerard Casale recalled years later.

Devo - Be Stiff 1977

Devo's first two singles, "Satisfaction" and "Jocko Homo" - self-released on the group's own Booji Boy label -were relatively torpid compared with their later frantic sound. This was partly because "Jocko Homo" and its B-side, "Mongoloid", were recorded in a garage with no heating during a freezing winter, with the band wearing gloves.

Devo - (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction (single version) 1977

Devo - Mongoloid (album version) 1978

Whenever feasible, Devo gigs began with The Beginning Was the End: The Truth About De-Evolution, a ten-minute film directed  by their friend Chuck Statler, whom they'd originally met in an experimental-art class at Kent State University. Statler's minimovie generated the enduringly famous images of Devo: singer Mark Mothersbaugh as mad professor in bow tie and white coat giving a student lecture on devolution, the rest of the band wearing plastic sunglasses and colored tights pulled tightly over their heads to squish their features, bank-robber style.

Devo - Jocko Homo (from The Truth About De-Evolution) 1976

Devo recorded their debut, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, in Germany while still embroiled in negotiations with labels (in the end, owing to a dispute over verbal agreements, Virgin and Warner Brothers both got the group, releasing Devo's records in the U.K. and America, respectively).

Released in August 1978, Q: Are We Not Men? is a stone classic, but it does suffer slightly from falling between two extremes, neither capturing the full frenzy of Devo's live shows nor making a total foray into producer Brian Eno's post-Low soundworld. "In retrospect, we were overly resistant to Eno's ideas", says Mothersbaugh. "He made up synth parts and really cool sounds for almost every song on the album, but we only used them on three or four the loop of monkey chanters that's on 'Jocko Homo'".

Devo - Jocko Homo (album version) 1978

You can still hear the Eno imprint. "Shrivel Up" is dank with synth slime, giving the song an abject feel that fits the lyrics about decay and mortality.

Devo - Shrivel Up 1978

"Gut Feeling" takes garage punk's woman-done-me-wrong rage and gives it a perverse twist: "You took your tongs of love and stripped away my garment".

Devo - Gut Feeling 1978

"Uncontrollable Urge" makes rock's "wild sexuality" seem as absurd and humiliating as an involuntary nervous tic.

Devo - Uncontrollable Urge 1978

"Come Back Jonee" likewise turns Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" inside out. In Devo's tune, the heartbreaker bad boy "jumps into his Datsun", the OPEC 1970s low-gas-consumption version of a real rock 'n' roll automobile like a T-Bird.

Devo - Come Back Jonee 1978

Their cover of the Rollling Stones' "Satisfaction" - which defiled the iconic sixties classic by reducing it to a desiccated theorem - was a hit in several European countries. Devo's disco-punk version resembled, in Mothersbaugh's words, "a stupid perpetual-motion machine clanking around the room".

Devo - Satisfaction (album version) 1978

Monday, September 19, 2011

Pere Ubu - The Modern Dance and Dub Housing

With outside interest in the Ohio scene reaching its peak, Blank Records released Ubu's debut album, The Modern Dance, in March 1978, while in April U.K. label Radar Records put out Datapanik in the Year Zero, an EP that made widely available for the first time the best tracks from the first three singles released on Hearthan Records.

At the eight of both their acclaim and artistic power, Pere Ubu sealed the impression of their creative floodgates having been hurled wide open by unleashing a second, even more impressive album only seven months after the debut.  

Dub Housing got its evocative name not from any reggae leanings, but a stoned eye's view of Baltimore as the band drove through the city in their tour van. "In Baltimore they had these row houses, and somebody said, 'Oh, look, dub housing'", says drummer Scott Krauss. The vistas echoed endlessly, paralleling the way that drum hits, guitar chords, and horn licks were turned into reverb trails by dub producers like King Tubby.

Pere Ubu - Ubu Dance Party 1978

The Modern Dance and Dub Housing both contained absurdist sound collages and exercises in pure Dada like "The Book Is on the Table" and "Thriller". These now became the blueprint for Ubu's third album, New Picnic Time.

"Our problem is that we never wanted to repeat Dub Housing", Thomas once said. "That desire to never repeat became as much of a trap as trying to repeat formulas the way some bands do". "We were on the edge of being popular but we were fundamentally incapable of being popular", Thomas admits, "because we were fundamentally perverse".

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Pere Ubu's first singles

Pere Ubu formed from the ashes of singer David Thomas's and guitarist Peter Laughner's previous band Rocket from the Tombs, a less obviously art-warped proposition modeled on the raw power of the Stooges and MC5. Pere Ubu's inaugural act was recording one of Rocket from the Tombs' least characteristic tunes as a single. In Ubu's rendition, "30 Seconds Over Tokyo" - an attempt to create the "total sonic environment" inside American bombers as they set off on their World War II mission to flatten Japan's capital - became even more eccentric. It starts out like some loping, rhythmically sprained hybrid of Black Sabbath and reggae, speeds up a bit, dissolves into free-form splinters, flips back to avant-skank, lurches into a sort of doom-laden canter, then expires in a spasm of blistered feedback. Over six minutes long and almost prog in its structural strangeness, "30 Seconds" sounded about as far removed from the Ramones as, say, Yes did.

Pere Ubu - 30 Seconds Over Tokyo 1975

The band's next two singles, "Final Solution" and "Street Waves", sold very well in the U.K. and Ubu's first tour there in the spring of 1978 was greeted as the Second Coming. Emerging bands like Joy Division and Josef K were in the audiences, assimilating Tom Herman's fractured guitar, Tony Maimone's baleful bass-as-melody approach, and the ominous atmosphere of song like "Real World" and "Chinese Radiation".

Pere Ubu - Final Solution 1976

Pere Ubu - Street Waves 1976

Pere Ubu - Real World 1978

Pere Ubu - Chinese Radiation 1978

Friday, September 16, 2011

Gang of Four - Solid Gold

The band's rampaging, balls-out rock side got captured on Solid Gold, which was released in early 1981. Sporadically exciting, the album's live-sounding production was more conventional than Entertainment!'s dessicated starkness.
Lyrically, Gill and King seemed to have lost their touch. The songs veered from crude, third-person typology (the protofascist caricatures of "Outside the Trains Don't Run On Time" and "He'd Send in the Army") to clumsy satire (the anti-American "Cheeseburger").

Gang of Four - Outside the Trains Don't Run On Time 1981

Gang of Four - He'd Send in the Army 1981

Gang of Four - Cheeseburger 1981

The better songs like "Paralysed" and "What We All Want" struck a note of sadness that tapped into the apprehensive mood that pervaded the start of the eighties, as the implications of the Thatcher and Reagan victories began to sink in.

Gang of Four - What We All Want 1981

The supine despondency of "Paralysed" offered an occasional glimpse of fragility in Gang of Four's music. The spoken lyric was taken by most reviewers as the lament of a man laid low by being laid off. According to Gill, who wrote and recited it, it's actually much closer to the blues in the original sense.

Gang of Four - Paralysed 1981

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Playing with a different sex: Delta 5 and The Au Pairs

The women in Delta 5 often wrote from a standpoint of defiance, aloofness, self-assertiveness, and unapproachable autonomy. "Mind Your Own Business", their debut single, was hilariously coldhearted and standoffish, resolutely barring entrance to someone craving intimacy and involvement. "Can I interfere in your crisis?/No! Mind your own business!"

Delta 5 - Mind Your Own Business 1979

"You", the second single, was funnier still, a series of accusations and recriminations. "Who left me behind at the baker's?/YOU, YOU, YOU, YOU!/Who likes sex only on Sundays?/YOU, YOU, YOU, YOU!"

Delta 5 - You 1980

Another hard-riffing agit-funk band with a mixed-gender lineup and songs that scrutinized sexuality with an unforgiving eye was The Au Pairs.
Their most famous song, "Come Again", depicts an egalitarian couple who is trying to achieve orgasmic parity. Sung as a duet, it's a microdrama in which Paul Foad plays the eager-to-please man earnestly frigging his long-suffering partner, Lesley Woods. "Is your finger aching?/I can feel you hesitating", she wonders, as the likelihood of orgasm fades to zero. By the end, despite everyone's progressive intentions, she's simply discovered "a new way to fake".

The Au Pairs - Come Again (BBC Sessions) 1981

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Gang of Four - "At Home He Feels Like a Tourist" and "Entertainment!"

While the Mekons struggled to promote Quality of Mercy, Gang of Four released their debut major-label single, "At Home He Feels Like a Tourist". The lyrics obliquely critiqued leisure and entertainment as surrogates for real satisfaction and stimulation. Lyrically opaque, the song was sonically Gang of Four's starkest and most compelling yet. Gill's backfiring guitar slashed across the robotic/hypnotic mesh of drums and bass, which sounded like "perverted disco", in Jon King's words.

Gang of Four - At Home He's a Tourist (Album version) 1979

Entertainment!, the debut album, is one of postpunk's defining masterworks, every aspect of the record (lyrics, music, artwork - the famous cover image of the fooled indian shaking hands with the cowboy eager to exploit him) is perfectly aligned. 
The sheer sound of the record - sober, flat, at once in-your-face and remoted - stood out. Entertainment! broke with with rock-recording conventions by being extremely "dry", in the technical sound-engineering sense of "no reverb, drums that didn't ring", says Burnham. There was no attempt to capture  what the group sounded like live, no gesture toward simulating music being played in a real acoustic space. This was obviously a studio artifact, a cold-blooded construction.

Entertainment! was dry in the emotional sense too, using the scalpel of Marxist analysis to dissect the mystifications of love, "capitalist democracy", and rock itself. And so "Contract", one of Entertainment!'s most unnerving songs, recasts matrimony in terms of a business arrangement, "a contract in our mutual interest". It shifts from the concrete specifics of a malfunctioning partnership - disagreements, disappointing sex - to the scripted nature of the unhappily married couple's conflict: "These social dreams/Put in practice in the bedroom/Is this so private?/Our struggle in the bedroom".

Gang of Four - Contract 1979

Recoiling from consumerism's "coercion of the senses", "Natural's Not in It" similarly insists there's "no escape from society". "Not Great Men" challenges history written from the standpoint of powerful leaders like kings and generals while ignoring the little people who build palaces and fight wars.

Gang of Four - Not Great Men 1979

Rerecorded for Entertainment!, "Love Like Anthrax" now featured a Gill dissertation on the love song as a staple of pop music issuing from one speaker, while the romance-ravaged King wailed out of the other. Gill ponders why pop groups sing about love constantly, expresses doubt that everyone is capable of this allegedly universal emotion, and concludes, "I don't think we're saying there's anything wrong with love, we just don't think that what goes on between two people should be shrouded in mystery". The polemic is spot-on. Propagated by Hollywood and popular song, the myth of romantic love gradually replaced religion as the opiate of the people in the twentieth century.

Gang of Four - Anthrax (Album version) 1979

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Mekons' second single and debut album

The Mekons' second single for Fast Product, the indie smash "Where Were You?" was released toward the end of 1978 and quickly sold out its 27.500-copy first pressing.

The Mekons - Where Were You? 1978

The Mekons were eventually persuaded to step up to the major leagues and sign with Virgin. But the big time didn't really suit a group based around amateurish charm. All the life was sucked out of the Mekons' debut LP, The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strnen, by its being recorded in Virgin's topflight studio, the Manor.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Gang of Four - Damaged Goods EP

"Damaged Goods", the title track of their debut EP, showed the group had done its Marxist homework and knew about things like "commodity, fetishism" and "reification". The song uses the language of commerce and industry as a prism offering disconcerting insight into affairs of the heart. With grim wit, the song represents a breakup in terms of refunds and emotional costs: "Open the till/Give me the change you said would do me said you're cheap but you're too much".

Gang of Four - Damaged Goods 1978

The EP's other standout track, "Love Like Anthrax", was an even more heartlessly cold dissection of romance. The music was estrangement enough by itself. "There's this bizarre, totally robotic drumbeat matched with a weird two-bar-loop bassline, so that the emphasis in both drums and bass falls entirely in the unexpected place", explains Gill. "And then my guitar comes in with random free-form noise". 
In 1978, feedback hadn't been heard in rock for a long while. Gill's howling cacophony was nothing like Hendrix's controlled yet orgiastic use of feedback to smear melody lines, or Velvet Underground's tidal waves of white noise. In rock's Romantic tradition, feedback typically signified the engulfingly oceanic, a swoony rush of Dionysian oblivion. In Gill's hand, it just sounded like migraine, which totally suited "Anthrax"'s theme of love as a debilitating brain fever, something any rational person would avoid like the plague. In the lyrics singer Jonathan King bemoans feeling like "a beetle on its back". He's paralyzed and literally drained, his lovesick thoughts trickling "like piss" down the gutter.
"Love Like Anthrax" is constructed as a sort of Brechtian stereophonic duet. King wails the stricken lover's lament from one speaker; Gill recites dry-as-dust details about the recording process from the other.

Gang of Four - Love Like Anthrax 1978

A Brecht fan to the point of having Bertolt's picture on the wall of his Edinburgh flat, Bob Last incorporated alienation effects into the artwork of Damaged Goods. "The group sent me a letter that was very precise about what they wanted on the cover", he says. Enclosed was a newspaper clip with a photograph of a female matador and a bull, along with a caption of dialogue. The matador explains, "You know, we're both in the entertainment business, we have to give the audience what they want. I don't like to do this but I earn double the amount I'd get if I were in a 9 to 5 job". The bull grumbles in response, "I think that at some point we have to take responsibility for our actions".
In the end Last ignored the Gang's wishes and designed a different cover, but reproduced the letter and the untidily snipped-out newspaper clipping on the back sleeve.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Militant entertainment: introducing Gang of Four and the Mekons' "Never Been in a Riot"

Gang of Our shunned the heat of rock spontaneity, the intuitive looseness of letting songs emerge "organically" out of jams. "No jamming - that was the J-word", says guitarist Andy Gill. "Everything was thought out in advance".
Drummer Hugo Burnham worked out unusual drum parts that inverted or frustrated the usual rock modes of rhythmic motion, like the mechanistic drum loop of "Love Like Anthrax", and what he calls the "continuous falling-down-the-stairs flow" of "Guns Before Butter".

Gang of Four - Guns Before Butter 1979

In their most thrilling songs - the taut, geometrical paroxysm of "Natural's Not In It", for instance - everything worked as rhythm, just like in James Brown's funk.

Gang of Four - Natural's Not In It 1979

A stumbling juggernaut of crude guitar and caveman drums, "Never Been in a Riot", the Mekons' debut, was a sonic argument in support of the proposition that rock, in the words of Melody Maker's Mary Harron, "is the only form of music which can actually be done better by people who can't play their instruments than by people who can".
Not everybody bought the argument initially. Rough Trade literally didn't buy it, refusing to take any copies of the single, saying it was just too incompetent. "Shortly thereafter, though, it was made Single of the Week in NME", recalls Fast Product's owner Bob Last (who signed the band for their first single). "And everybody wanted it, including Rough Trade".
NME's seal of approval was all the more significant because it came courtesy of the paper's resident punk rocker Tony Parsons, who took the lyrics of "Never Been in a Riot" as an inspired lampoon of the Clash's street-fighting-man posturing. According to Mekons' leader Tom Greenhalgh, the song is closer to an admission of vulnerability. "That you might be in a riot and be scared. Being open about that kind of weakness rather than trying to put on a front".

The Mekons - Never Been in a Riot 1978

Friday, September 9, 2011

After the Pop Group: Pigbag and Mark Stewart's Jerusalem

The Pop Group splintered into multiple bands. Maximum Joy and Pigbag pursued slightly different versions of funk. Pigbag, helmed by Simon Underwood and still associated with Dick O'Dell's Y label, became a real pop group, scoring a massive U.K. hit with "Papa's Got a Brand New Pigbag".

Pigbag - Papa's Got a Brand New Pigbag - 1985

Stewart, meanwhile, sang on the first New Age Steppers album, then made his solo debut in October 1982 with a fully realized version of "Jerusalem", the English hymn the Pop Group massacred at their last show in Trafalgar Square. Produced by Sherwood and marrying church organ swells to dub's thunderquake bass, "Jerusalem" unites Blake's vision of Albion as promised land with the Zion of Rasta's dreaming. Its declaration "I shall not cease from mental fight nor shall my sword sleep at my side/'Til we have built Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land", served as a mission statement for Stewart's ongoing career as culture warrior. 
Amazingly, almost thirty years later he's still shouting down Babylon.

Mark Stewart & The Maffia - Jerusalem 1982

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Evolution of the Slits

Proposing a kind of cosmology of rhythm, "In the Beginning There Was Rhythm" hymned all the pulsating patterns that structure reality: "...God is riddim...Riddim is roots and roots is riddim...SILENCE! Silence is a riddim too!". Ari Up and Neneh Cherry had encountered the early underground hip-hop scene on a trip to New York, and hearing rap for the first time inspired her percussive, chanted delivery on "In the Beginning There Was Rhythm".

The Slits - In the Beginning There Was Rhythm 1980

As a sideline to the Slits, Ari Up formed New Age Steppers, a collaboration with dub producer Adrian Sherwood and his session musicians Creation Rebel. Released in the first week of 1981, the group's debut single, "Fade Away", features one of Ari Up's finest vocal performances, but its trust-in-Jah fatalism (the power-hungry and money-minded will all "fade away", leaving the righteous meek to inherit the earth) seemed disconcertingly passive, suggesting a retreat into hippielike serenity.

New Age Steppers - Fade Away 1981

One more Slits album, Return of the Giant Slits, saw the group abandon the independent scene for a major label, CBS, even bigger than their previous home Island Records. Influenced by African music, Sun Ra and Don Cherry (Neneh's father and a pioneer of ethnodelic jazz), the record's diffuse, low-key experimentalism fell into a hostile marketplace.

In songs like "Animal Space", Ari Up's pantheism took an ecomystical turn. "Earthbeat", for instance, was a lament for a sorely mistreated Mother Earth ("Even the leaves are wheezing/Even the clouds are coughing").

The Slits - Animal Space 1981

The Slits - Earthbeat 1981

After the band finally fell apart, the singer fled Babylon (aka the industrial First World) in search of any remaining havens of unspoiled Nature. Flitting from rural Jamaica to the jungles of Belize and Borneo (where she lived with tribal indians), she became a real earth mother with a family.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Linton Kwesi Johnson's influence on Pop Group's Mark Stewart

Stewart had been hanging with Linton Kwesi Johnson and organisations like Race Today and the Radical Alliance of Black Poets and Players. Linton Kwesi Johnson didn't exactly mince words: his antifascist anthem "Fite Dem Back" vowed "We gonna smash their brains in/'Cos they ain't got nuffink in 'em". Johnson wasn't actually a Rasta (indeed he upset many Jamaicans when he mocked Rastafarianism as an ostrich religion), but his patois-thick voice and baleful cadences gave the words, which look simplistic on the printed page, a power and authority that Stewart aspired to.

Linton Kwesi Johnson - Fite Dem Back 1979

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Evolution of The Pop Group

Like the Slits, the Pop Group pined for a lost wholeness that they imagined existed before civilization's debilitating effects. The song "Words Disobey Me" even hinted that language itself might be the enemy, that underneath all the layers of conditioning lay a pure, inarticulate speech of the heart. "Speak the unspoken/First words of a child...We don't need words/Throw them away", beseeched Stewart.

The Pop Group - Words Disobey Me 1979

The Pop Group's mounting revulsion for corporate capitalism and corresponding desire for "purity" in a corrupt world inspired the single "We Are All Prostitutes". Musically, it's their most powerful recording. The lyrics, though, abandoned Y's imagistic delirium for a histrionic rant against consumerism, "the most barbaric of all religions". Stewart warned, "our children shall rise up against us". The Pop Group seemed to be changing from lusty poet-warriors to puritanical doomsayers.

The Pop Group - We Are All Prostitutes 1979

The backlash came in March 1980, triggered by a split single that paired the Slits' "In the Beginning There Was Rhythm" with the Pop Group's "Where There's a Will". NME's Ian Penman mockingly dissed them as "Bristol Baezes", evoking sanctimonious sixties folkie Joan Baez.

The Pop Group - Where There's a Will 1980

The second Pop Group album, For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? got panned as self-righteous soapbox agitprop. The music was still fiery, and actually more focused than Y, but it was hard to stomach the crude finger-pointing of songs like "Blind Faith".

The Pop Group - Blind Faith 1980

The band seemed to proceed methodically through a checklist of issues - "Justice" dealt with police brutality, "How Much Longer" with Nixon and Kissinger's war crimes - and the self-flagellating guilt trip vibe was off-putting. "There Are No Spectators" chided the politically disengaged and passive, declaring, "There is no neutral/No one is innocent".

The Pop Group - Justice 1980

The Pop Group - How Much Longer 1980

The Pop Group - There Are No Spectators 1980

The album was relentlessly pinned to the specifics, from the sleeve with its collage of news clipping about outrages such as East Timor to songs such as "Feed The Hungry", all blurted statistics and denunciation. Hectoring and lecturing, For How Much Longer was as unpoetic as a fringe leftist pamphlet.

The Pop Group - Feed The Hungry 1980

A massive antinuclear rally held in Trafalgar Square in October 1980 was the last time the Pop Group performed together. After this high point - playing to 250.000 people - the Pop Group fell apart. "An organic disintegration", says Stewart. "There was no ill will".

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Slits - Cut

The most delightful element in the Slits' sound on Cut is the strange geometry of the clashing and overlapping vocals, as guitarist Albertine and bass player Pollitt weave around singer Ari Up's shrill, slightly sour warble. On the opener, "Instant Hit", the girls form a roundelay of haphazard harmonies that the singer describes as "a kind of 'Frère Jacques' thing". Albertine's lyrics to "Instant Hit" depict an unhealthily thin boy who "don't like himself very much/'cos he has set his self to self-destruct" - a barbed portrait that applied equally to Sid Vicious and Keith Levene, her junkie bandmates in the band Flowers of Romance.

The Slits - Instant Hit 1979

"So Tough", a frenetic pisstake of macho posturing, gives way to the doleful skank of "Spend, Spend, Spend", its sliding bass and brittle-nerved percussion perfectly complementing the lyric's sketch of a shopaholic vainly trying to "satisfy this empty feeling" with impulse purchases.

The Slits - So Tough 1979

The Slits - Spend, Spend, Spend 1979

"Shoplifting" turns "Spend, Spend, Spend" inside out: the first song's woman-as-consumerist dupe is transformed in the second's petty-thief-as-feminist rebel. Frantic punk reggae, "Shoplifting" surges into adrenalized overdrive as Ari Up, caught red-handed, yells "do the runner". The song climaxes with a shattering scream that mingles terror, glee, and relief at escaping the supermarket detective, a yowl that collapses into the giggled gasp, "I've pissed my knickers!"

The Slits - Shoplifting 1979

The fast songs on Cut are exhilarating - "Shoplifting", "Love Und Romance" (a romance-as-brain-death parody), and the single "Typical Girls" (a diatribe against un-Slitty females who "don't create, don't rebel" and whose heads are addled with women's-magazine-induced anxieties about "spots, fat, unnatural smells").

The Slits - Typical Girls 1979

The most emotionally haunting songs, though, are down-tempo and despondent in the mold of "Spend, Spend, Spend": "FM", "Ping Pong Affair" and "Newtown".
The last takes its name from towns built from scratch after the Second World War, some encircling London and designed to absorb the capital's population overflow, others built in the rural middle of nowhere. All of them, typically, started life as an architect's and urban planner's utopian vision before swiftly degenerating into characterless gridzones of anomie and despair. "Newtown" draws a disconcerting parallel between the normal citizens hooked on cultural tranquilizers like "televisiono" and "footballino", and the Slits' own bohemian peers zonked on illegal narcotics. On the track, Albertine's jittery scrape mimics the fleshcrawling ache of cold turkey.

The Slits - Newtown 1979

Withdrawal of an emotional kind inspired "Ping Pong Affair". Ari Up measures out the empty postbreakup evenings with masturbation ("Same old thing yeah I know/Everybody does it") and cigarettes.

The Slits - Ping Pong Affair 1979

Cut's famous cover photograph of the group as mud-smeared Amazons combines nostalgie de la boue with she-warrior defiance to jab the casual record shop browser right in the eye. Naked but for loincloths and war paint, the three Slits stand proudly bare breasted, outstaring the camera's gaze. Behind them you can see the wall of a picturesque cottage, brambles and roses clambering up the side as if to underline the "we're no delicate English roses and this is no come-hither look" stance. The cottage was Ridge Farm, the studio where Bovell produced Cut. Says Ari Up, "We got so into the countryside when we were doing the album, to the point of rolling around in the earth. So we decided to cover ourselves in mud and show that women could be sexy without dressing in a prescribed way. Sexy in a natural way, and naked without being pornographic".

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Pop Group - She Is Beyond Good and Evil and Y

Released by Radar Records in March 1979, the Pop Group's debut single, "She Is Beyond Good and Evil" was an exhilarating splurge of disco bass, slashing punk-funk rhythm guitar, and deranged dub effects, with singer Mark Stewart caterwauling lines like "our only defense is together as an army/I'll hold you like a gun".
Lyrically, says Stewart, the song was "a very young attempt to mix up poetic, existentialist stuff with political yearnings. The idea of unconditional love as a revolutionary force - the way it kind of switches on a light, makes you hope for a better world, gives you this idealism and energy".

The Pop Group - She Is Beyond Good and Evil 1979

To record "Beyong Good and Evil", the Pop Group hooked up with Dennis Bovell, who at that point was the only British reggae producer brilliant enough to bear any comparison with the Jamaican greats like Lee Perry and King Tubby. Bovell's musical scope stretched way beyond reggae, though. He'd played lead guitar in a Hendrix-influenced band called Stonehenge and believed that Jimi had created the first dub track ever in 1967 with "Third Stone from the Sun".

Jimi Hendrix - Third Stone from the Sun 1967

For "3:38", the B-side to "Beyond Good and Evil", he took the A-side's music and ran it backward, psychedelic-style, then built a new rhythm track for it with Bruce Smith (Pop Group's drummer). "We'd almost run out of studio time, that's why I reused the A-side", says Bovell.

The Pop Group - 3:38 1979

Working on their debut album Y, Bovell quickly grasped that the rhythm section held the whole band together. "Simon Underwood and Bruce Smith, they were the Sly and Robbie of the postpunk period, tight", says Bovell. "The thing that was not together about the Pop Group was Gareth Sager's and John Waddington's guitars and Mark's singing, which would be drifting all across the frame".

Pop Group songs like "We Are Time" blazed with a rage to live. "Not wanting to just be alive", says Stewart, "but to rid yourself of all constrictions. We had this romantic idea of going through nihilism, this intense deconditioning process, and emerging on the other side with something really positive".

The Pop Group - We Are Time 1979

Fire figured in the Pop Group's imagination as an ideal state of being, evoking inner-city riots, pagan rituals, the 1960s free jazz of Archie Shepp's Fire Music. One of the band's best songs, "Thief of Fire", used the Prometheus myth to talk about the quest for "prohibited knowledge, going into unknown areas".

The Pop Group -Thief of Fire 1979

Although the sheer funk force of Underwood and Smith makes the up-tempo songs like "We are Time" physically compelling, elsewhere Y veers into texture-saturated abstraction with sound paintings like "Savage Sea" and "Don't Sell Your Dreams".

The Pop Group - Savage Sea 1979

The Pop Group - Don't Sell Your Dreams 1979

Friday, September 2, 2011

First releases on Rough Trade Records

Two full years elapsed between the opening of the first Rough Trade store and the label's debut release in February 1978: Metal Urbain's "Paris Maquis". "We thought they were the French Sex Pistols", says Geoff Travis (Rough Trade's founder). Next came an Augustus Pablo single. But it was ROUGH 3 - the Extended Play EP by Sheffield experimental trio Cabaret Voltaire - that really tapped the emergent postpunk gestalt.

Metal Urbain - Paris Maquis 1978

Cabaret Voltaire - Here She Comes Now (Velvet Underground cover) 1978

But what really put the label on the map and made the majors sit up and take apprehensive notice was when Inflammable Material, the Rough Trade album by Belfast punk band Stiff Little Fingers, went straight onto the U.K.'s national pop charts at number fourteen in February 1979.

Stiff Little Fingers - Wasted Life 1979

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Swell Maps

Teenagers growing up in Solihull -  a middle class suburb on the edge of the Midlands industrial city Birmingham - Swell Maps were a gang of friends centered around two brothers who hated their given surname (Godfrey) so much they renamed themselves Nikki Sudden and Epic Soundtracks.
Pooling their savings and borrowing some from the Godfreys' parents, Swell Maps pressed two thousand copies of their debut, "Read About Seymour". Released on the group's own label, Rather, the single is often said to be about Seymour Stein, founder of the New Wave-friendly U.S. label Sire, who'd signed Talking Heads and the Ramones. 
Actually, the title refers to a totally different Seymour Stein, this one known as "the king of mods" in 1960s England. The lyrics, though, were composed in cut-up fashion.

Swell Maps - Read About Seymour - 1977

Swell Maps were obsessed with war, but in a whimsical and boyishly innocuous way. "Then Poland", "Midget Submarines" and "Ammunition Train" drew on military history (especially the Spanish succession wars of the early eighteenth century) and the boys' adventure story character Biggles, also a fighter pilot.

Swell Maps - Midget Submarines - 1979

Swell Maps - Ammunition Train - 1978

The Maps also loved Gerry Anderson's marionette TV shows of the sixties, Thunderbirds and Stingray. A Stingray episode provided the title for Swell Maps' debut album, A Trip to Marineville.

Along with their pals the Television Personalities, Swell Maps invented a whole strand of postpunk that made a fetish of naiveté, characterized by weak vocals, shaky rhythms, rudimentary droning basslines and fast-strummed discords. For believers, much more than the "sped-up heavy metal" that was first-wave punk, this was the true realization of the here's-three-chords-now-start-a-band ethos - except some of the groups didn't even have three chords. 
"It took me two years to learn two chords", Sudden told NME. "I can't even see ourselves becoming polished, note perfect and all that. We hardly ever rehearse - about once every six months".
Fervent amateurists, Swell Maps believed bands got ruined when they depended on playing gigs and releasing records in order to make a living. One of the reasons the group split, shortly before the release of their second album Jane From Occupied Europe, was that they were becoming too successful, with a tour of America looming.

Many of the groups in Swell Maps' wake, though, went a step further and equated amateurism with amateurishness, the deliberate avoidance of anything that smacked of professionalism or slickness. From the liberating declaration that "anyone can do it", DIY became a confining injunction to sound like anyone can do it.
Swell Maps were always more expansive and experimental than this: for every frantic racket such as "Let's Build a Car", there was an eerie metallic instrumental, such as "Big Empty Field", clangorous and full of cavernous hollows, the missing link between Neu! and Sonic Youth.

Swell Maps - Let's Build a Car - 1979

Swell Maps - Big Empty Field - 1980