Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Specials, Madness and the beginning of the ska revival

Just as "Death Disco" started sliding down the UK charts in July 1979, another single shot in like a rocket: "Gangsters". The Specials' debut shares a surprising amount with PiL's single: a bassline that pounds against your ribcage like a heart full of fear, baleful vocals (singer Terry Hall modelled his glowering persona on Johnny Rotten), and a sinuous, snake-charmer melody that's almost like a cartoon version of Lydon's muezzin wail. 'Cartoon' is the key word, though. For all the lyrics' conjuring of menace and corruption ('we're living in real gangster times'), the Specials' manic exuberance made "Gangsters" pure pop.

The Specials - Gangsters 1979

Where Metal Box's featureless packaging refused image, The Specials' selftitled debut album revelled in it - the cover shows the seven members of the band looking super cool in pork-pie hats, thin ties and sharp sixties suits. PiL's matt-grey canister was starkly functional, a pointed exercise in demystification. But The Specials' black-and-white sleeve harked back to an older glamour: the monochrome period feel of the early sixties.

Despite The Specials' outward appearance of boisterous fun, their songs' worldview is strikingly cheerless. In "Nite Klub", the wage slaves piss away their pay packets with beer that already tastes like piss.

The Specials - Nite Klub 1979

"Too Much Too Young" starts as a taunting diatribe against an ex-girlfriend who's lost her youth to premature motherhood ('Try wearing a cap', jeers Hall), then turns rueful and almost compassionate for the lives they've both lost: 'You done too much, much too young/Now you're married with a son when you should be having fun with me'.

The Specials - Too Much Too Young 1979

"Stupid Marriage" is a marginally more jaunty take on the same scenario: Hall as the jilted boyfriend spying on his ex and her husband, then lobbing a brick through the bedroom window. This grim vision of matrimony as death trap - 'She's got him where she wanted and forgot to take her pill/And he thinks that she'll be happy when she's hanging out the nappies/If that's a happy marriage I'd prefer to be unhappy' - recalls The Who's "A Legal Matter" and kitchen-sink dramas like Up the Junction.

The Specials - Stupid Marriage 1979

The Who - A Legal Matter 1965

The song "Concrete Jungle", like PiL's "Chant" and Fatal Microbes' "Violence Grows", takes a snapshot of street life in 1979: a record year for racial attacks and muggings. Embellished with sound effects of breaking glass, "Concrete Jungle" is driven by a disco-style walking bassline that periodically accelerates to a panicked sprint, the protagonist gibbering, 'Animals are after me' and, 'Leave me alone, leave me alone'.

The Specials - Concrete Jungle 1979

Singer/producer Prince Buster was even bigger in Britain than he was in Jamaica: he released more than six hundred singles in the UK between 1962 and 1967, and toured frequenly, often escorted between gigs by a phalanx of scooter-riding mods. The Special upheld the mod tradition of worshipping Buster. "Gangsters" was loosely based on his "Al Capone", replacing the original lyrics with all-new words about the record business's sharks and shysters, but 'sampling' the skidding car-chase tyres from the original.

Prince Buster - Al Capone 1967

"Stupid Marriage" stole its courtroom scenario - The Specials' resident rude boy Neville Staple as Judge Roughneck meting out harsh sentences to rude boys - from Buster's "Judge Dread" hit of 1967.

Prince Buster - Judge Dread 1967

"Message to You Rudy", the Dandy Livingstone classic covered by The Specials, wasn't written from a 'conscious' standpoint, but it did counsel the rude boy to mend his ways: 'better think of your future'.

The Specials - A Message to You, Rudy 1979

Dandy Livingstone - Rudy A Message to You 1967

Madness outdid all the other ska revivalists with their debut single - their sole release for 2-Tone Records. On one side, a version of Buster's "Madness" made for an instant manifesto.

Prince Buster - Madness 1967

On the other, "The Prince" paid luminous tribute. 'A ghost dance is preparing', announces singer Suggs McPherson, a nod to "Ghost Dance", Buster's own homage to the sound system operators of his youth. "This may not be uptown Jamaica", sings Suggs, conceding that, 'although I'll keep on running, I'll never get to Orange Street' - a reference to the boulevard that was both Buster's birthplace and the centre of Kingston's music biz. "The Prince" sounds joyous, but its lyrics capture the poignant pathos of the mod dream - escaping the impasses of England through a massive projection towards black music and black style.

Madness - The Prince 1979

Prince Buster - Ghost Dance 1967

Thursday, January 19, 2012

PiL's third: Flowers of Romance

A breakthrough of sorts occured several days into the sessions for recording of PiL's third album, Flowers of Romance. Instructing the engineer to keep the tape rolling no matter what, Levene tapped out some percussion patterns on a strange bamboo instrument that Virgin boss Richard Branson had brought back from Bali, then added synth sounds ('the animals' inside the percussive jungle, as he puts it). The result, entitled "Hymie's Him", was the weakest track on Flowers of Romance, but it broke the deadlock and gave the group a direction.

PiL - Hymie's Him 1981

Flowers is the PiL album on which Lydon the non-musician contributes most - he actually plays instruments, like the three-stringed banjo on "Phenagen" (a track named after a heavy-duty sleeping pill). On Flowers, Levene's guitar appeared only on "Go Back" (self-parodically) and "Phenagen" (psychedelically reversed).

PiL - Go Back 1981

PiL - Phenagen 1981

Summoned at the studio to lay down beats, Atkins found Lydon and Levene weren't there. So he worked closely with engineer Nick Launay to create striking rhythm tracks. 'I'd fallen asleep with my Mickey Mouse watch against my ear and then woken up to that sound. So we put the watch on a floor-tom skin so it would resonate, and then Nick harmonized, looped and delayed that sound, and I drummed to it, and that became "Four Enclosed Walls".

PiL - Four Enclosed Walls 1981

Atkins was also heavily involved in the album's stand-out track, "Under the House" - a stampeding herd of tribal tom-toms with string sounds shrieking across the stereo field. Lydon's processed vocals seem to emanate from his throat like malignant gas or ectoplasm. The lyrics allude to a supernatural experience - some accounts claim it's about a ghost that haunted the Manor studio, although Levene believes it refers more to an abstract sense of evil to which Lydon was unusually attuned.

PiL - Under the House 1981

The title track on the album lived up to [NME writer] Vivien Goldman's hype about PiL inventing 'a new kind of rhythm'.

PiL - Flowers of Romance 1981

Released as a single in March 1981, "Flowers of Romance" reached number 24 and resulted in another deranged Top of the Pops performance: Levene pounding the drums in a lab technician's white coat, PiL's videographer Jeanette Lee dwarfed by her double bass, and Lydon, dressed as a white-collared vicar, sawing dementedly on a fiddle.

PiL - Flowers of Romance (Top of the Pops) 1981

Such was PiL's eminence that when the album finally arrived the next month, it was automatically hailed as another paradigm-shattering masterwork. More sceptical commentators, though, noted the distinct lack of work involved - from the paltry length (thirty-two minutes) to its desultory packaging (a Polaroid of Jeanette Lee with a rose between her teeth).

Of the leave-me-alone whinge "Banging the Door", Lydon later said, 'It's horrible to listen back to that kind of paranoia'.

PiL - Banging the Door 1981

A creepy account of being seduced by a female journalist, "Track 8" is particularly repellent, its vindictive imagery of fleshy tunnels 'erupting in fat' and naked, bulbous bodies betraying Lydon's Catholic fear of the flesh.

PiL - Track 8 1981

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Post-punk's pinnacle: PiL's Metal Box

In 1979 John Lydon lost both his mother (to cancer) and his estranged best friend Sid Vicious (to heroin). Witnessing his mum, the great source of strength and encouragement in his life, slowly slipping away inspired Lydon's lyrics to "Death Disco", the first PiL release after the debut album. Wobble's hard-funk bassline pushes forward like fear rising in your gorge. Levene generates a staggering amount of sound using a single guitar - simultaneously torturing the classical-kitsch melody of "Swan Lake", hacking out rhythm chords that feel like blade touching bone, and scattering a microtonal scree of harmonics. Searing through this swarm of anguish, Lydon exorcises his grief like Yoko Ono at her most primal-scream harrowing: 'Seeing in your eyes...Silence in your eyes...Final in a fade...Flowers rotting dead'.

PiL - Death Disco 1979

Released in June 1979, "Death Disco" is arguably the most radical single ever to penetrate the UK's Top 20. I remember the Top of the Pops presenter (whose name escapes me) looking ashen-faced as he reluctantly uttered the song title when introducing the group.
Wobble sat in a dentist's chair through the whole performance. 'Everyone else lined up to get made beautiful, but I just asked the BBC make-up people to have my teeth blacked out, so I could do a big smile at the camera with my front teeth missing'.

PiL - Death Disco (Top of the Pops) 1979

PiL's next single, "Memories", pursued the dance direction even more intently with its brisk groove of hissing high hat and crisp snares, and its disco-style breakdowns, where the sound strips down and the intensity rises several notches. Only Levene's glassy shrouds of Arabic-sounding guitar felt at odds with the dance-floor imperative. Well, that and Lydon's anti-nostalgia invective, which was not exactly an invitation to get down and boogie. Baying like a cross between a banshee and a mountain goat, he railed against some nameless fool still living in the past. Some speculated that Lydon was attacking 1979's burst of nostalgia (the mod and ska revivals), but when he sneered 'This person's had enough of useless memories', it felt like he was talking about his own need to sever ties to the past, whether memories of his loved ones or tangled regrets about his years in the Pistols.

PiL - Memories 1979

Martin Atkins, who went on to become PiL's longest-enduring drummer, was recruited when the second album Metal Box was virtually finished. He received a summons to the studio in the form of an inconsiderate 3 a.m. phone call.
'When I got to Townhouse Studios (where the band was recording), someone says, "There's the drum kit, make something up"', Atkins recalls. 'Wobble and I wrote "Bad Baby" off the top of our heads - what you hear on Metal Box is literally that first five minutes of us playing together for the first time'. As you might imagine, this isn't the best way for a band to operate. Indeed, "Bad Baby" is the only real blemish on what otherwise stands as not only PiL's masterpiece but post-punk's pinnacle.

PiL - Bad Baby 1979

The album starts with "Albatross", ten minutes of pitiless bass pressure from Wobble, over which Levene scythes the air and Lydon sings like he's being crushed between two giant slabs of rock. "Albatross" is "Public Image" turned inside out: Lydon's confidence that he can outrun his past curdling into despair.

PiL - Albatross 1979

"Memories" and "Death Disco" follow, the latter retitled "Swan Lake" and now ending in a locked groove, Lydon's grief and horror frozen for eternity, like Munch's Scream.

PiL - Swan Lake 1979

After the surging urgency of the two singles comes the slow suspension and numb trance of "Poptones". Gyrating around Wobble's deep, probing bassline, Levene's guitar scatters a wake of harmonic sparks that merge with the lustrous halo of cymbal spray. Talking about his 'circular, jangly', almost psychedelic playing on "Poptones", Levene once compared its repetitiveness to staring at a white wall: 'If you look at it for a second, you'll see a white wall...If you keep looking at it for five minutes, you'll see different colours, different patterns, in front of your eyes - especially if you don't blink. And your ears don't blink'.
Rising to the occasion, Lydon matches the music's sinister grace with one of his most quietly unsettling lyrics: sketched in oblique, fractured images, it's an account of someone who's been abducted, driven into the woods, and raped. 'Hindsight does me no good/Standing naked in this back of the woods', intones the victim, bitterly recalling the reassuring 'poptones' playing on the car's cassette player. It's not clear if the song is being sung by a corpse, or if the person got away and is now cowering and shivering in the wet foliage.
On "Poptones" and other Metal Box songs, Lydon's delivery meshes with Levene's guitar in a weird modal place somewhere between Celtic and Arabic. 'When someone can't sing you get these natural voice tones', explains Wobble. 'So PiL's music was based more around overtones and subharmonics, rather than harmony per se. The Beach Boys we were not! PiL actually had more in common with music from Lapland or China'.

PiL - Poptones 1979

"Poptones" whooshes straight into the Northern Ireland-inspired terror ride of "Careering", during which Levene abandoned guitar for ominously hovering and swooping electronic sound-shapes created on the Prophet 5 - an early and expensive form of polyphonic synth.

PiL - Careering 1979

Then came "No Birds Do Sing" - PiL's zenith, as far as Levene is concerned. Wobble and drummer Richard Dudanski set up a foundation-shaking groove, over which Lydon intones another scalpel-sharp lyric, dissecting suburbia's 'layered mass of subtle props', the serene narcosis of its 'bland, planned idle luxury'. Levene's guitar emits a strange metallic foam that's simultaneously entrancing and insidious.

PiL - No Birds Do Sing 1979

The instrumental "Graveyard" is disco music for a skeletons' ball: it really sounds like dem bones doing the shake, rattle 'n' roll.

PiL - Graveyard 1979

After this, Metal Box loses its way with the underdeveloped "The Suit" and "Bad Baby", but then recovers dramatically with the last three songs: the psycho-disco of "Socialist", all dry, processed drums and synth blips; the thug-funk stampede of "Chant", with Lydon ranting about street violence and wet-liberal Guardian readers; and the unexpected Satie-like poignancy of "Radio 4", with its sighing synths and gently sobbing bass.

PiL - The Suit 1979

PiL - Socialist 1979

PiL - Chant 1979

PiL - Radio 4 1979

In honour of reggae and disco's twelve-inch aesthetic and to ensure the highest possible sound quality, PiL insisted on releasing the album as three 45 r.p.m. records, rather than a single 33 r.p.m. disc. The idea of putting the three discs inside a matt-grey film canister came from Lydon's friend Dennis Morris, rock photographer and member of the all-black post-PiL band Basement 5.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

San Francisco's other postpunk bands: Tuxedomoon, Chrome and Flipper

On Tuxedomoon songs like "What Use?" and "7 Years", cold electronics, shudders of violin, and lugubrious saxophone conjured an atmosphere of languid melancholy.

Tuxedomoon -What Use? 1983

Tuxedomoon - 7 Years 1980

From the Scream with a View EP to the second album, Desire, themes of anomie and modernity recurred.

"Holiday for Plywood", for instance, is about consumer paranoia and dream-home heartache: 'You daren't sit on the sofa/The plastic makes you sweat/The bathroom's done in mirror tiles/The toaster wants your blood'.

Tuxedomoon - Holiday for Plywood 1981

You could imagine Chrome classics like "Chromosome Damage", "All Data Lost" and "Abstract Nympho" as a cold-rush soundtrack for Neuromancer, the 1985 genre-defining novel by William Gibson.

Chrome - Chromosome Damage 1978

Chrome - All Data Lost 1978

Chrome - Abstract Nympho 1979

The saxophone-boosted juggernaut "Sex Bomb", Flipper's big crowd-pleaser was steeped in funk. As in PiL, the bass (played alternately by Bruce Lose and Will Shatter) adopted the melodic role, allowing the guitarist to rain corrosive noise on the listener's head. Like Keith Levene, guitarist Ted Falconi rarely played riffs or distinct power chords, but instead just churned up distorted drone tones and writhing weals of feedback.

Flipper - Sex Bomb 1981

Humour permeated even the the most nihilistic Flipper songs like "Nothing" and "Life Is Cheap". As an example, see the ambiguity of Shatter's line 'Life is the only thing worth living for', delivered in a voice pitched exactly midway between cynical derision (at the sentiment's fatuity) and desperate belief.

Flipper - Nothing 1982

Flipper - Life Is Cheap 1982

Flipper's debut Album-Generic Flipper, from 1981, rocked like a wild party on the rim of the void.

Three years later, Gone Fishin' pushed the band's bass-grind dirge-punk into more experimental zones: stark and hypnotic, "The Lights, The Sound, The Rhythm, The Noise" is a kissing cousin to Joy Division's "Transmission", while the celestial maelstrom of "You Nought Me" swirls with Sun Ra keyboards, multitracked vocals, and pitch-bent sounds, like a demonic kaleidoscope where all the colours are black.

Flipper - The Lights, The Sound, The Rhythm, The Noise 1984

Flipper - You Nought Me 1984

By the closing "One by One", Flipper sound like they're smashing their way through the planet's crust. 'Will's beating up his bass and trying to sound like the low-rumbling surf, Ted is playing the psalm of the ocean, Steve's drums are the waves crashing, and me, I'm singing the body of water', says Lose, misty-eyed and mystical.

Flipper - One by One 1984

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Pop music's dark side: The Residents

The question 'Who are the Residents?' stirred much speculation. One persistent rumour maintained that they were the post-break-up Beatles rejoining in secret for neo-Dadaist mischief-making. This probably stems from the fact that early on the group toyed with calling themselves The New Beatles, while their 1974 debut, Meet the Residents, featured on its front cover defaced portraits of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr from Meet the Beatles.

To the Residents, the Fab Four symbolized everything bad and everything good about pop: its tyrannical mind-controlling ubiquity (Lennon's 'we're bigger than Jesus' comment) but also the experimental potential of psychedelia.
All these conflicted feelings came together on their 1977 single 'Beyond the Valley of a Day in the Life' - a piece also known as 'The Beatles play the Residents and the Residents play the Beatles' - which featured 'samples' of The Beatles' wilder moments woven into an eerie audio collage. At various points you hear Lennon singing, 'Don't believe in Beatles' (from his first solo album) and issuing this wan apology to their global audience: 'Please, everybody, if we haven't done what we could have done, we've tried'.

The Residents - Beyond the Valley of a Day in the Life 1977

The Residents had already released The Third Reich N Roll in 1976: a darkly comic satire of post-Beatles pop as totalitarianism, with American Bandstand presenter Dick Clark dressed as Hitler on the front.

The sidelong 'Swastikas on Parade' is a medley of defiled sixties hits overlaid with blitzkrieg sound effects - air-raid sirens, dive-bombing Stukas, machine-gun fire. In its sleevenotes the Cryptic Corporation (the organization that looked after the band's affairs) describes the record as a 'tribute to the thousands of little power-mad minds of the music industry who have helped to make us what we are'.

The Residents - Swastikas on Parade 1976