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Give me music and give me noise....

Saturday, 25 June 2011

I don't like music

Comment from  a work colleague about this blog yesterday: "It's made me not like music".

Ri-gh-t. Not quite the intention of my earnest blog-scribbling on the noise/annoyance/bliss-out/beauteous/R'n'R interface.

He was joking. I think.

Not liking music. Kind of like being dead, to my mind. Is it even possible to not like music? Er, yes, it seems so. My own dear mother appears to have no discernible interest in music (there was a vague Roger Whitaker phase in the late 70s, but I think that was imposed on her by the rest of the family). To her, music is ... yes, just a noise, a potential annoyance to be dealt with/turned down/silenced. I remain a sore trial to her ....

Personal anecdote: one ex-girlfriend's flat boasted a music collection consisting of about seven CDs. I cautiously asked about them: "Are these just a few you brought along from your old place for the time being?" "No, that's all of them. Why, is that strange?" It would be facetious and unfair to talk about musical incompatibility as grounds for separation. (Or would it?) But when I'm being reduced to playing a "Best Of Ska" CD (which was anything but ...) during the late-night south London hours, doubts do intrude ...

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Keeping it unreal

I've always thought "authenticity" in music made no sense.

And here is my totally authentic account of why I'm right, of why I'm no faker ... and I'll be saying it all in a fully convincing voice that's absolutely my own. And, not only that, because I'm "street", am genuinely working class and never went to art college, everything I say is more valid than what you say, you middle class poseur.


Amongst a certain age group (mine!) you get people complaining about "manufactured" bands at every tedious pub-bore juncture.  "It's all image now", they bleat, hankering after a time of "real" groups, "real" musicianship.

Top of the pile, for the "reality" krew, tend to be rock bands, ideally ones with blue collar cred. Bruce Springsteen, Motorhead, AC/DC, Bon Jovi, Guns 'N' Roses, maybe U2 and Queens Of The Stone Age. That kinda ting. Also Status Quo, wearers of denim, that tried and tested signal of roadhouse authenticity (later flannel shirts or simply heavily-worn band t-shirts).

During punk, bands that weren't punk enough were "plastic". It was The Stranglers (real) v XTC (phoney), The Ruts v The Boomtown Rats. As Jon Savage observed, there was always a depressing "social realist" tendency in punk which meant that Joe Strummer's strained vocal emoting was "authentically" punk while the more mannered delivery of (say) Adam & The Ants was not.

Roll forward a few years and the people that disparaged bands like Altered Images or The Human League for being "fake" (in reality code for "they're not using guitars", or "I think they're gay") were struggling against the sparkly sight of New Romantics and the sacreligious sounds of Roland synths.

After that, hip hop, house and things like (ahem) Stock, Aitken & Waterman must have seemed just like further proof of the continuing descent into an inauthentic, plastic-flamed hell. Nothing's ever been good enough for them since ...

It's all fake though! I don't buy the authenticity thing at all. Musical acts aren't called that for nothing (what, you thought Seasick Steve was a genuine guy, a real hobo?) So, OK, Woody Guthrie might have been a real-life "Okie" who sang dust bowl ballads about other Okie refugees, but there are plenty of great musicians who didn't have such a validating exposure to harsh reality. I blame the blues. There's a Louis Armstrong record where he intones the fruity preamble "Listen boy, I gotta right to sing the blues".  Blues surely provides the template for the authenticity/music formula. If you were poor and black and came from Mississippi then ... well, then maybe you had a "right" to play blues music. But what about if you were white and British and actually a bit middle class (Mick Jagger)?

The other day the Guardian (of all papers) used "middle class" as a pejorative in relation to "Indie" music. Reverse snobbery is all the rage in music these days. Grime is accorded a respect that seems to have a lot to do with the fact that it's made by mostly working class black people, rather than whether it's any good.

I personally don't care whether you're from Mississippi or Middlesex, and I don't mind whether you're a poor, 75-year-old black man playing a steel-string guitar or a white trustafarian twenty-something programming glitchy beats using a Mac. Like Mr Scruff, I just want you to keep it unreal man. And I really mean that.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Bring me my indie guitar of burning gold

Why bother blogging about the meaningless of "Indie"?

I almost didn't  But the Guardian's 22-page feature has been rankling. Slightly.

Twenty-two pages on what, exactly? Lots of interesting people, yes. Mark Perry, Iggy Pop, Steve Albini, Mark E Smith, James Murphy. But the article's all over the place. The Byrds, the New York Dolls, Pete Murphy, Depeche Mode, Madchester, the Artic Monkeys, the Libertines etc. Why not just throw in everyone who is not Meatloaf and REO Speedwagon and have done with it?

More than anything else, the entire article doesn't seem to have much feel for music. It reads more like the product of a brainstorm (which I'm sure it is). If "indie" means anything in musical terms (which I doubt it does), wouldn't you want to discuss bands like Felt, Half Man Half Biscuit, Monochrome Set, The Wedding Present, Jackdoor With Crowbar, Big Flame, the Cocteau Twins, the Pastels, Hefner, Stump, Microdisney and many others?

Here and there the article almost makes sense. The significance of labels like Stiff, Factory, Rough Trade, Mute and SST is where I think it threatens to become coherent. (A potted history of independent labels would in fact have been far more illuminating than seizing on things like John Peel's Festive Fifty and The Strokes and labelling them all "indie"). But even with record labels the Guardian doesn't mention how the much-vaunted independence of labels such as Factory Records began to collapse when the independent distributors like the Cartel and Pinnacle ceded control to the majors (eg Polygram distributing Factory from the late 80s, I seem to recall).

Also, if you were being serious about the significance of DIY music culture wouldn't you want to say something about the importance of self-produced CD-Rs in the last 10 years, or stress the significance of the internet in allowing music-makers to bypass the record industry altogether? Instead the Guardian's entry on what it calls the "noughties phenomenon of blog-rock" is cursory, and references to Animal Collective and Fleet Foxes show how the standard model of "making it big" dominates the mood of the entire piece (other egs: "Creation conquers pop", Belle And Sebastian prove the power of the fanbase", "Franz Ferdinand take post-punk into the top 10").

It's a dog's dinner alright, and that includes some rather revolting old sprouts thrown in with the gravy and potatoes. A couple of (probably superfluous) examples before I throw it all up (and then eat all down again. Yum). The Reading festival of 1989 is singled out as an important moment when "indie kids" were presented with a big event featuring New Order, Spacemen 3 and the Sugarcubes. Jeez. I was unfortunate enough to be at this Mean Fiddler-promoted abomination and if this was in any way "indie" then so is Madonna or U2.

Finally, the feature's entry on the NME's C86 cassette deserves a mention. There may be some truth in the Guardian's contention that the publicity around this meant that hereafter "indie" became much more associated with white guitar-based music. Fine. But why not discuss what this music was rather than dismissing it (extremely unfairly) as "wheyfaced, middle-class, white people making underpowered guitar music"? Rockist? The Guardian?

Discussing "blog rock" (WTF is this, anyway?) the paper says "By the end of the decade" it had become "so fuzzy as to be virtually meaningless". Rather like "Indie", if you ask me. Except it had never meant anything in the first place.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

D'ye ken John Peel?

I reckon it needs saying. When are music journalists going to desist with their lazy write-ups of John Peel’s Radio 1 show? It’s usually a travesty. We’re always getting: “He was as likely to play Bogshed B-sides, reggae or Zimbabwean guitar music as happy hardcore or Napalm Death”. Or: “When he wasn’t playing records at the wrong speed, he was talking about his beloved Liverpool”. Or: “Loved the Fall, favourite record Teenage Kicks, blah blah bloody blah….”.
The canonisation and cuddlie-fication of “Peel” (or, gulp, “Peelie”) has been a slowly growing cancer in the mainstream music media ever since he died. Give it a few more years and it will be just “Teenage Kicks … The Fall … wrong speed … legend”. Uncle John Peel. Fab. Great. He was a legendary DJ wasn’t he?
I think the reality was different. Yes, he played a huge variety of music (and the write-ups never convey this properly, it wasn’t wilful “B-side” obscurantism, he was genuinely trying to programme underplayed music), yet it sometimes followed patterns that were limited. So, regarding reggae, I recall he played Lee Perry far more than other artists and regularly reverted to Misty In Roots’ Live At The Counter Eurovision (I never could see why he raved about this record so much). Basically, his reggae picks were meagre/indifferent.
He had some blind spots (to my mind) which sometimes made listening a trial: Wah!/Pete Wylie, Altered Images/Clare Grogan, The Delgardos, Laura Cantrell. Blimey, it could be hard work when he had them in the studio or something. Similarly, if he was retrieving an Elmore James or a Captain Beefheart track, he tended to pick the same one (Dust My Broom, Big Eyed Beans), which was a shame and over-familiar if you were a regular listener.
However, the pluses far, far outweighed the minuses. The “Peel in miniature” description tends to miss out the way that he played stuff like Hefner, Ballboy, Sportique and their ilk. It doesn’t do justice to the way he played electronic music of all kinds for years. Not only techno or drum and bass (which he played pretty consistently), but all kinds of experimental electro sounds: Pan Sonic, Autechre, Richard D James, Atari Teenage Riot, glitch, Ninja Tunes material etc, and, which is the point as well, stuff from artists that have never had a significant profile since.
Another issue is that his famed “avuncular” style was not quite the way it’s now normally portrayed. Terse, unapologetically “intelligent” intros, outros and observational comment was his stock-in-trade, but then he’d occasionally throw in curve balls. He’d gush (rather cringingly) about Liverpool/Kenny Dalgleish (the dire Home Truths JP emerging here), but he’d also stray into political territory every now and then. The 2003 Iraq anti-war march was one such moment and I think the 80s miners’ strike was as well.
He’d also make remarks about the Smashie and Nicey brigade which were clearly not just showbiz joshing but quite heartfelt: I recall Mike Read’s not owning a record player coming in for withering repeat mentions. (Less endearingly, there are now whole message boards around revelling in Peel’s put-downs and mini-feuds with the daytime crowd, all laced with a rather sickening matey praise for the “great man” JP. It’s Smashie and Nicey’s revenge).
Interestingly, I remember him introducing a Band Of Susans song with an account of how he’d been particularly depressed (“low”) one evening before seeing them and how they’d lifted him out of it. This wasn’t a plunge into Simon Bates-style mawkishness and it didn’t seem to be rehearsed showbiz bullshit. It sounded like an uncategorisable moment from someone who was sometimes playing uncategorisable music. 
Instead, what we’re now getting with John Peel is analogous to that self-parodying “John Peel” who would sometimes present Top Of The Pops. In one of his many mis-judgments (those ubiquitous ad voice-overs), this buffoonish version (holding the mic rigidly in front of his mouth, “bopping” ironically as the camera pulled away) was always a slight embarrassment to a regular listener. Yeah, we get the joke John, but why bother?
I haven’t yet read Margrave Of The Marshes (like thousands of others who’ve got this charity shop staple on their shelves, I suspect) and I could stand corrected on what I’m saying here. But I don’t think so.
It’s time to end the caricaturing of John Peel. But how to do it? One way is to check out the blogs about his work (there are many). They’re a hundred times richer than the cardboard cut-out versions we’re being palmed off with.

And the richness and density is the point. The mainstream gets Peel glibly wrong because it tries to sum him up too neatly. It’s not even true that he played lots of records at the wrong speed; it was only a fraction and then half the time because he was putting on stuff like unmarked seven inches that played at 33 and a third, something a daytime jock was hardly confronted with.    
When John Peel died a friend asked: who was I now going to listen to as a replacement? I didn’t know. Then I realised where the new John Peel was. It was the world wide web. The internet, bloggers, YouTube, Google, mp3s. And how do you sum that up …?

Saturday, 11 June 2011

1986: indie-rock can't turn around

Darryl Pandy's death gets me thinking about that great year in music: 1986.

(Actually, I reckon every year is a great year in music if you're listening hard enough, but anyway ....)

In '86, in my neck of the woods, post-punk or indie ruled. I was rushing around to see gigs from My Petrol Emotion, Felt or The Wolfhounds. Punk's afterlife was everywhere, even if it wasn't very punk. But hey, what was that repetitive, tinny but strangely hypnotic "disco"-like music. Yes, my fellow indie-rocker, that was house music and it had absolutely no guitars in it. Capisce?

The disco sucks mentality died hard amongst post-punkers (in some cases it never did at all), but I think house finally killed it off for a lot. The first commercial rap didn't count. Run DMC, Beastie Boys, Public Enemy et al, they came in an "acceptable" and "hard" white/rock packaging (Aerosmith, Led Zep riffs, identifiable JBs breaks). By comparison, house was ... bloody hell, it was disco, but not as we knew it. It was also borderline - or maybe well-over-the-border - "gay", as well, so another leap of faith was required for some ...

@Historyatnight describes the Darryl Pandy "moment" extremely well (that TOTP performance is totally ... er, OTT), and, as well as the ecstatic experience of first-wave house and acid nights (this Hacienda video captures something about that), I think the coldish, abstract rhythms of Chicago house as a sound was extremely important.

For some people the whole scene seemed to be definitive. I had one friend, reared on the Ramones, Television and the Only Ones, who began to go around disparaging "indie crap like the Wedding Present" at about this time. Hmmm. I liked the WP as well, so found this year zero-type mentality hard to take. (Similarly, a hardcore Hacienda raver in my circle once recorded house music over one of my John Peel tapes that I'd lent - not to her - but to her housemate. "So what", she said when I asked her why she did it, "it was all shit anyway").

Hearing Darryl Pandy's fruity-voiced account of love not turning around for the first time didn't turn my musical world upside down. It just produced a few more chinks in my indie-rock armour. Chink chink.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Music's last rites

“The night is young, we are not”, says the 103-year-old* lead singer of pub-punkers Armitage Shanks during one of their recent gigs.

(*OK, not that old).

Before I grow old and die I wanted to say the following …

Rock and roll is decrepit and on its deathbed but it just won’t expire. Please bring in a R’n’R Jack Kevorkian to administer a gentle needle.

Actually, wrt to Simon Reynolds’ Retromania book, I find myself in a tizz about the music biz. I’m a regular Reynolds reader but, from what I’ve seen and heard of his Retromania thesis, I’m just not buying it. He’s basically peddling a pop-will-eat-itself theory that, here in the late noughties early teens, musicians are obsessed with music’s past and are not producing anything genuinely new.

Hmm. Far be it from me to question Reynolds on innovation and music given his credentials (that voluminous knowledge of post-punk, rave, D’n'B, dubstep etc), but wasn’t it ever thus? In the 70s and 80s you had masses of backward-facing music as well as new stuff. Reworking heritage material is exactly what music’s always done, isn’t it? From early blues re-using plantation and frontier songs or whatever. Musical magpies decorating their pretty little nests with stolen trinkets. Nostalgia for an age yet to come, recycling as creation.

Granted, his point about YouTube making the “archive” more immediately accessible is right, but I don’t think that’s fundamental. In the pre-internet age people passed on records, tapes or caught stuff on the radio. Further back they heard other people playing and borrowed (stole) the riffs and lyrics.

OK, it’s probably speeding up now, but the merry-go-round is still producing innovation. “Grime” is the default answer to Reynolds, but surely it’s more than that. Much of breakcore and some of its bewildering variants are so mind-bogglingly on-the-edge-of-the-world new and strange that I think you could spend the rest of your miserable, lonely lives exploring just this. It might not be an out-and-out revolution, but is it ever so? We’ve got weird E. coli-like mutations going on all over the place and that’s equally interesting.

In my other blogger life I was just pontificating about dinosaur rockers like Pink Floyd and recalling the appeal of whatever’s new in music. I still get that. Give me new every day. If it’s made by some unknown kids on the scruffier, less-monied side of the music block, then great.

But old fogies also hit the spot as well, depends how they do it. I’m not sure how old they are (they’re not young though), but for example the Belgian noise merchants A Clean Kitchen Is A Happy Kitchen are pummelling sound into some pretty interesting shapes.

Is that settled then? Age is no barrier. Music’s still mutating nicely.

But, oh no, look over there! They’re mouthy, young, fresh-faced and on the cover of NME. They’re THE NEXT BIG THING.

Spare me. Where’s that syringe again?