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.