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 clich├ęs 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.