Sunday, July 29, 2007

[Bring the Noise deleted scene #6]

THE SMITHS, Brixton Academy, London
Melody Maker, December 6th 1986

Perhaps this Anti-Apartheid benefit will finally knock on the bonce the interminable “is Morrissey a racist?” debate*. Not that it isn’t pertinent
to talk about the gulf, the antipathy even, between indiepop and black pop. But the irony is that it’s precisely the indie fans most estranged from black culture
who are most likely to be anti-racist and politically committed. This
was an anti-apartheid concert with a near-total absence of black faces in the audience.

But then The Smiths are one of the great white rock bands (they have a surprisingly manly audience, laddish even). Smiths music is about as albino as you can get
this side of the Fall--an amalgam of rockabilly, “Jeepster”-ish chords and folk-rock, low on sensuality, high on yearning. R&B is a remote, fourth-hand trace.

Morrissey is still a darling, still flaunting those nipples, although the indecency has, inevitably, become ritual. But there seems to be less camp to The Smiths now, more powerchords. The new songs don’t frolic or frisk, they stomp. The next single, “Shoplifters Of the World Unite”, is positively grungy, a Hello B-Side, and the closest their music has yet come to possessing a groin.

The second guitarist having absconded, Marr was unable to show off. Instead we were treated to a brilliant clarity of sound. The Smiths sounded robust. And Morrissey was very… guttural, delivering particular lyrics with a comical growl. With his growing sense of himself as Statesman has come something bordering on aggression. “The Queen Is Dead”, that sublime Stooges wah-wah blitz,
could properly climax in the smashing of guitars.

And there’s “Panic”, that (in every sense) hysterical fantasy of revenge, Morrissey swirls a noose from his hip, as if to say: suck on this, soulboy--the music press masses remain, obstinately, a ROCK community, with a defiantly old fashioned investment in Meaning.

And the meaning trembling beneath the skin of Smiths songs is--“please save your life/because you’ve only got one”. The Smiths speak to those who want something more from life, but know, secretly, that they will never get it.

The band are at once deeply traditional (a four man guitar band!) and supremely radical, making one final renovation of the rock rebellion, but only by turning the myth inside out, replacing aggression with fragility, lust with purity. But the motor of this rock is still narcissism--narcissism wounded, introverted, then exploded into epic gestures of martyrdom.

Perhaps for things to really change we’d have to allow a woman to be an equivalent seer figure. For now, The Smiths are still the greatest rock group on the planet.


* the great "are the Smiths racist debate?" of 1986 was spurred by certain aspersions made by the NME soulboy contingent vis-a-viz the Smiths and indiepop culture for its non-engagement with black music, also similar comments made by Green Gartside who described "indie" as racist, but above all by Morrissey's remarks in interview conducted by Frank Owen in Melody Maker, September 27th 1986. The relevant portion is below, Morrissey's words in quotation marks:


... The detestation that your average indie fan feels for black music can be gauged by the countless letters they write to the music press whenever a black act is featured on the front page. It's a bit like the late Sixties all over again with a burgeoning Head culture insisting that theirs' is the "real" radical music, an intelligent and subversive music that provides an alternative to the crude showbiz values of black pop. Morrissey has further widened this divide with the recent single, Panic - where "Metal Guru" meets the most explicit denunciation yet of black pop. "Hang the DJ" urges Morrissey. So is the music of The Smiths and their ilk racist, as Green claims?

"Reggae, for example, is to me the most racist music in the entire world. It's an absolute total glorification of black supremacy... There is a line when defence of one's race becomes an attack on another race and, because of black history and oppression, we realise quite clearly that there has to be a very strong defence. But I think it becomes very extreme sometimes.

"But, ultimately, I don't have very cast iron opinions on black music other than black modern music which I detest. I detest Stevie Wonder. I think Diana Ross is awful. I hate all those records in the Top 40 - Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston. I think they're vile in the extreme. In essence this music doesn't say anything whatsoever."

But it does, it does. What it says can't necessarily be verbalised easily. It doesn't seek to change the world like rock music by speaking grand truths about politics, sex and the human condition. It works at a much more subtle level - at the level of the body and the shared abandon of the dancefloor. It won't change the world, but it's been said it may well change the way you walk through the world.

"I don't think there's any time anymore to be subtle about anything, you have to get straight to the point. Obviously to get on Top Of The Pops these days, one has to be, by law, black. I think something political has occurred among Michael Hurl and his friends and there has been a hefty pushing of all these black artists and all this discofied nonsense into the Top 40. I think, as a result, that very aware younger groups that speak for now are being gagged."

You seem to be saying that you believe that there is some sort of black pop conspiracy being organised to keep white indie groups down.

"Yes, I really do."

Morrissey goes on: "The charts have been constructed quite clearly as an absolute form of escapism rather than anything anyone can gain any knowledge by. I find that very disheartening because it wasn't always that way. Isn't it curious that practically none of these records reflect life as we live it? Isn't it curious that 93 and a half percent of these records relect life as it isn't lived? That foxes me!

"If you compare the exposure that records by the likes of Janet Jackson and the stream of other anonymous Jacksons get to the level of daily airplay that The Smiths receive - The Smiths have had at least 10 consecutive chart hits and we still can't get on Radio 1's A list. Is that not a conspiracy? The last LP ended up at number two and we were still told by radio that nobody wanted to listen to The Smiths in the daytime. Is that not a conspiracy? I do get the scent of a conspiracy.

"And, anyway, the entire syndrome has one tune and surely that's enough to condemn the entire thing."

People say that about The Smiths. And it seems to me that you're foregrounding something that isn't necessarily relevant to a lot of black music, especially hip-hop. It's like me saying that I don't like The Smiths because they don't use a beatbox.

"The lack of melody is not the only reason that I find it entirely unlistenable. The lyrical content is merely lists."

Do you dislike the macho masculinity of many of the records?

"No. I don't find it very masculine."

Well, a lot of it is about...

"What? Chicks?" he sniggers.

No. One upmanship. Having the best, the biggest.

"Mmmmm. It's just not the world I live in and, similarly, I'm sure they wouldn't care that much for The Smiths. I don't want to feel in the dock because there are some things I dislike. Having said that, my favourite record of all time is "Third Finger, Left Hand" by Martha and the Vandellas which can lift me from the most doom-laden depression."

Why is it that people like yourself can eulogise Sixties black pop and yet be so antagonistic towards present-day black pop? Nostalgia?

"No. It was made in the Sixties but I don't listen to the record now and say, 'Well, I must remember this is a Sixties record and it's 1986 now so let's put it all into perspective.' It has as much value now as ever. We shouldn't really talk in terms of decades."

Sunday, July 22, 2007

[Bring the Noise deleted scene #5]

MANTRONIX, Music Madness (10 Records)
Melody Maker, December 6th 1986.

by Simon Reynolds

Mantronix don’t quite fit. Hip hop is getting to
be more and more of an assault, more and more hyper-compressed
and minimal in its search for harder and higher hits. But
Mantronix are loosening up their music, bringing in a suppleness
and textural luxury. Hip hop daily exceeds new levels of
megalomaniac viciousness. But Mantronix are gradually squeezing
the SELF out of their music, letting the music stand on
its own madness.

Compare what Mantronix are doing with a track that
represents some kind of zenith in current hip hop
trends--“The Manipulator” by Mixmaster Gee and The Turntable Orchestra
(off Electro 14). Here skill on the turntables becomes a
twisted, bloated metaphor for omnipotence. The voice shoves
itself RIGHT IN YOUR FACE--you can practically feel the spittle,
smell the breath. It’s a voice intoxicated with power, quaking with
rage. MC Tee from Mantronix, in comparison, has a refreshingly
adolescent voice, almost sweet--words are slurred, there’s the
tiniest suggestion of a lisp.

“Manipulator” style hip hop is given its impetus by being focused
on the tyrannical charisma of the rapper, but with Mantronix the
raps seem almost superfluous. There are several instrumentals. With most
hip hop the very sound of the music is a MASSIVE COCK waving about
in your face. Mantronix erase every trace of the pelvis, every last ditch of humanism in hip hop. Their music isn’t weighted down by the
heaviness of masculinity, but glides, skips, even frisks at times, rather
than thuggishly stomping us weaklings underfoot. Mantronix sound
disembodied, dislocated, out-of-it.

They are far out, a long way from firm ground. Mantronik marshals
a host of uprooted fragments and abducted ghosts into a dance. He
thieves indiscriminately, without prejudice, enlisting anything
from Benny Goodman to The Old Grey Whistle Test theme tune.
On “We Control the Dice” they even indulge in self-kleptomania (or perhaps
simple thrift is at work), re-using the bass motif from “Bassline”.

Their greatest influence, though, is European electropop--the
scrubbed, spruce, pristine textures and metronomic precision
of Kraftwerk and Martin Rushent’s Human League. While the brainy British
bands of the day dedicate themselves to noisy guitars, it’s up to Mantronix
(and House music) to uphold the spirit of 1981, to cherish the bass sound
and the electronic percussion of “Sound of the Crowd” as a lost future of pop.

They have moments close to wildness-“Big Band B-Boy” commandeers
a jungle of percussion--but I prefer it when Mantronix sound stealthy.
“Scream,” with its curiously muted delivery of a party-up lyric
(the word “scream” is almost whispered) is as eerie as Suicide lullabies
like “I Remember” or “Cheree”. The title track has a roaming, furtive
sense of space, the phrase “music madness” sampled, stretched and
melted into a series of beautiful belches. Best of all is the closing
“Megamix”, in which everything you’ve been listening to for the last
half-hour is regurgitated inside out and upside down, flashing before
your ears like a drowned, garbled life. Sublime pandemonium.

Music Madness is the kind of music you’d hoped The
Art of Noise would go on to make after “Close (to the Edit)”.
Fleshless, soulless, faceless and fantastic.

Monday, July 16, 2007

[Bring the Noise deleted scene #4]

Sick or Sweet: Hip Hop and Indie-Rock
New Statesman column November 1986

There’s a current left orthodoxy that assumes that black
music, because it’s the voice of ‘the street’, has some
kind of natural link with socialism. Hip hop is a problem for
this Red Wedge worldview. Here’s a black subculture that
confronts racism and economic oppression not with a redemptive
vision of solidarity, equality and humanity, but with a
survivalist mentality, a masculine self-sufficiency. Hip hop’s
community is based around a spectacle of pathological
individualism. Rappers strive to do each other down in a
strange caricature of capitalism’s war of all against all.

A good example is the solipstic masterpiece that
is the debut LP by Schoolly D (Rhythm King). Schooly D
inhabits a blank, nihilistic universe, where the only authority
is the self, where the only goals are making the “sucker-ass niggers”
feel small, and acquiring the status symbols of
‘sophistication’--gold, designer clothes, drugs, ‘fine ladies’.
Musically Schooly D and partner DJ Code Money take hip hop
beyond dance, to a point where the only comparisions are
with the brutality and minimalism of avant-garde groups
like Throbbing Gristle and Swans. Most rappers bully the
listener, but Schoolly is too cool for that, lets his voice swagger,
slurring the words in an intoxication of narcissism and
contempt. What’s the pleasure in submitting to all this?
There’s a vertiginous, vicarious sense of psychic extremity,
an appeal to something unpleasant in all of us…

Some would find it disturbing to realise that black male
youth doesn’t identify with wholesome, right-on singers like
Junior Giscombe, but with the likes of Run DMC, whose philosophy
is: “If I ain’t winning, if I ain’t right there at the top looking
down at the rest… I have to win.”More evidence: Mixmaster Gee’s
“The Manipulator” on Electro 14 (Streetsounds). Here prowess on the turntables is swollen into a sick, compelling fantasy of
omnipotence. The rappers sounds drunk with power. His voice
snarls right up in your face. The bass crushes you underfoot.
What kind of an entertainment is this? Simply, what’s being
sold is a megalomaniac fantasy, for the powerless.

A characteristic of modern black pop is its willingness
to be un-black, to thieve in all directions. Mantronix, on their
new LP Music Madness(10 Records) filch from sources as diverse
as Glenn Miller and The Old Grey Whistle Test theme tune.
Their greatest debt, though, is to the fleshless, soulless electropop of Kraftwerk, who are as pristinely metronomic as ever on Electric Café (EMI).

The Beastie Boys migrate in the opposite direction,
three white hardcore punks from Brooklyn who are infatuated
with B-boy slang and attitude. On Licensed To Ill (Def Jam)
they splice and dice beats and rap with Sabbath and Zeppelin riffs
to devastating effect. Of course, they’re obnoxious, loudmoth boors
(“some voices get treble/some voices got bass/we got the kind of voices
that are IN YOUR FACE”) and their objectionable lyrics revolve around beer and cursing and crack and grossing out on White Castle’s cheeseburgers
and disrepectin’ girls. But there’s a brattish exuberance and musical mischief that I’m not strict enough to shun. If I wanted to get pretentious
I could argue that this is a radical kind of vileness, I could talk
about the politics of the Slob, about how hip hop refuses yuppie health
and self-improvement, says ‘this is me in all my beastliness and bad habits’.
About how hip hop inverts values so that ‘treacherous’ and ‘ill’ and
‘chilly’ are good things to be. I could say all this, but that would be an ingenious and disingenuous way of rationalizing away shame.

The Beastie Boys are an exception. White rock grows ever more
inbred, mining the narrow seam of its own past. C86 (Rough Trade)
a New Musical Express compilation of new British
indiepop shows how the beatnik delinquency of influences
like The Velvet Underground, Byrds, Beefheart, has been
replaced by a stay-at-home Englishness. The common sensibility
seems to be a desire to reconstruct ‘innocence’--hence the obsession with childhood and with the Sixties. Best of this spindly breed are the
insolent Wolfhounds and all-girl group We’ve Got A Fuzzbox
And We’re Gonna Use it, whose tomboy boisterousness can also
be enjoyed on Love Is the Slug (WEA).

Indie groups tend to take the alienation and doubt of
adolescence as a kind of kind of ‘truth’ that’s lost in
adulthood’s selling-out to comfort and complacency and certainty.
The accusation leveled at The Smiths--of glamourising misery and failure--is gloriously true. Here are two more groups that succeed in
romanticizing dereliction of the soul. On Your Funeral… My Trial (Mute) Nick Cave reinvents downtrodden musics like blues and country,
finding in the Deep South an appropriate backdrop for
his tales of ruin and obsession and revenge. The Band of Holy Joy’s Who Snatched The Baby? (Flim Flam)is the latest in a series
of brilliantly lugubrious waltzes and shanties, folk music infected with a contemporary sense of rootlessness and disorientation.

And therein likes the difference between black and white pop.
White bohemian rock is downwardly-aspiring, looking to the past
for roots, for the lost ‘real’ of suffering. Black pop takes
conventional upwards aspirations, conventional sexual protocol,
and turns them into a cartoon utopia. There’s a vast chasm between
white rock and black pop, but if you’re schizophrenic enough you
can get something out of both.


Monday, July 09, 2007

[Bring the Noise deleted scene #3}

PARLIAMENT, Uncut Funk--the Bomb--the Best of Parliament(Club)
Melody Maker, Sept 6th 1986

From singing doowop on the streets of New York In the Fifties to this year’s electro-monstrous “Do Fries Go With That Shake” is some singular funk-odyssey. Everything Clintoon has touched in funk has been state-of-art AND out-on-a-limb. What he does is take funk’s already lurid cartoon vision of street swank and give it an extra acid-tinged dose of unreality.

The result is a dance music that manages to be indecently, lewdly visceral, and at the same time strangely disembodied, even spectral. With P-funk we see again that sex and dance--supposedly the most natural, realest things -- are really improbably, ludicrous, surreal activites.

P-Funk means pure funk, uncut with vanilla substances, but Parliament are far from the clipped minimalism, the simple good-times groove of a Kool & The Gang. The key to P-funk is that basic funk signals are scrambled into a funk-gibberish, but one that still makes perverted floor-sense. Or rather overloaded, cluttered with too many funky strands, draped with so many tangents, follies, flights of fancy, you fear the groove will collapse under the strain. But no, everything pushes forward, moves you.

Early Seventiest tracks like “Tear the Roof off the Sucker” are like warped Ohio Players, all kooky harmonies and loopy keyboards frolics. “Flashlight”, exemplary late Seventies Clinton, is all itchy, squitty synth squiggles and harmony backing as unhinged and eerie as Sun Ra. And Bootsy Collins (as much a genius as Clinton) is the Hendrix of his instrument. How his bass bulges, drools, clenches, strains, evacuates, folds in on itself, haemorrhages. From thorough to nimble, that bowel-deep feel hits you in your funky fundament.

The lyrics gibber too--a whole creed swollen from a single, slippery, elusive concept: funk. Funk as salvation, funk as epistemology, funk as revolutionary praxis. The nearest to articulation we get is: “a creative nuisance… the recognition of stupidity as a positive force.” P-Funk is BLENORRHOEA--a spurting of folly. Enrol in this madness today.


Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Bring the Noise deleted scene #1

Monitor issue 2, early 1985


1985, and a gaggle of groups plough a well-furrowed, increasingly barren field. Its perimeters are staked out by Cabaret Voltaire, Shriekback, Clock DVA, 23 Skidoo, A Certain Ratio, and somewhere beneath it all lurks the notion that there is something radical about black dance music, that it is the appropriate base for experiments and polemic. 1985, and with Chakk’s lazy talk of a “spirit of funk”, perhaps it’s time to delive into the history of this new orthodoxy.

Gradually, late in the 70s, funk was valorized, it became a positive term, somehow more progressive than rock. Part of the reason for this minor revolution is bound up with the “cultural economy” of youth music--the structural requirement for new input; not simply, simplistically, in order to maintain profits and preserve careers, but because the self-respect of musicians and journalists depends on their self-conception as, respectively, innovators and discoverers. And because youth culture, and all the hopes invested in its myths, depends on a constancy of rhetorical efflorescence, of a sense of happening(s), of revolution(s). With punk dying, there was a sense that rock was archaic and debased. At similar moments of entropy, black music has functioned as an alluring Outside for white bohemian youth--the old notions of the Black as Other, the incarnation of sexuality, the forbidden. Alienated white youth has traditionally aspired to “white negro" status, desiring both the oppression/exclusion blacks suffer, and their symbolic resolution of their problems, their victory over environment, in style and music. But whereas previously identification with geographically proximate black subcultures was the influence, in the late 70s there was a dissemination of certain ideas of “blackness” through the media, a borrowing from the files of pop history. Rhythm/roots/radicalism--this cluster’s perceived identity, was what lay behind the post-punk drive for a reinfusion of blackness. ‘Funk’ became a cipher, something to be cited or claimed; but crucially, it was an empty term in to which varying kinds of power were read (as a remedy for rock’s impotence).

For an element in the postpunk vanguard--overtly political groups like Gang of Four, Au Pairs, Pop Group--the clenched feel of funk, its tightness, was the appropriate rhythmic base for militancy and commitment and rigour of thought. This idea of funk as menace probably stemmed from the idea of bad-ass as personified by Sly Stone, George Clinton, James Brown, et al. Brown’s music, in particular, has functioned as a crucial bridge between trad white rock culture and 80s disco--he weaned white ears onto other, softer, blacker music. Brown’s peculiar appeal and influences lies in his exaggeration of R&B into a pure, precise pulse of male assertion/sexuality, a surface music of arid, cold textures, fleshless and soulless. (Which was why JB’s collaboration with Afrika Bambataa and electro was so appropriate and so dreary). Really, the funk of the agit-prop groups was no more than an acceptable form of masculine hardness and aggression (where rock as such was now considered embarrassing). Generally, they reduced funk to riffing, to guitars, bass and drums, unaware of the role of voices and production in black music.

Others groups “found” different properties in funk. A genre developed based on a profound perversion of funk’s sexual tension into a different sort of het-up charge, one of unease and dread. The disco backbeat became the given, the “natural” springboard for these experimentalists with their collages of industrial decay and social fragmentation. One reason was the neutrality of disco--it wasn’t loaded with associations that rock was, it was outside pop history, so it could be used as an element in futurist music. The idea was simple--marry technology and savagery, control and madness, the cerebral and “feel”. Music embodying both the system of industrial society and the breaking free (into violence, debauchery, excess) of instincts suppressed by the system. The musicians’ ambivalent feelings towards Control and Collapse (attracted to both) is bound up with the old egghead problem/project--how to think yourself past thought, or as Talking Heads’ put it--“help us lose our minds”, “stop making sense”. Jam Science, the Shriekback LP title, is the most succinct and distressingly pat expression of the goal. Blackness was read as wildness, or unrepression, and so the “spirit of funk” was basically invested with a danger it does not really possess.

Chakk and Hula are two current outfits who reveal both the extent and the limits of what can be achieved within this genre. The obvious musical strands--found voices; distorted, FX-ridden vocals; trails of discordant sax; somber swathes of synth; filched ethnic noises; basslines and drum patterns that bear a formal resemblance to funk but are fatally drained of sex and soul--are strung around the familiar concepts and content: cut-up theory; the ambivalent obsession with religious/jingoist fanaticism, atrocity, psychosis (via J.G. Ballard); totalitarianism (via William Burroughs’ Control). Even the titles instill a sense of deja vu--“Delirium”, “Cut the Dust”, “Tear up”, “Out of the Flesh”, “Pleasure Hates Language”. Hula’s Murmur and Chakk’s recent Peel session contain music that can emote and excite, but both groups make worthy additions to a pre-existing field, rather than enlargements or developments to it. The rhetoric of provocation, the claims to be “disturbing”, seem misplaced. What strikes is the inarticulacy of the music, despite its sensual surface and the intelligence that goes into the play with sound; nothing is imparted, nothing resolved. It exists as entertainment, not challenge, for a converted, stable audience--all those withdrawn young men who “groove” on this angst-funk and disco noir.

Direct imitation of black music rather than mutation or bricolage seems to dominate today’s music scene. Late in ’83, X Moore [aka Chris Dean] wrote in Harper’s and Queen (!) that 1984 would see a new “revolt into style”, an “upful” music, “brassy" and full of defiant hope, by groups steeped in Stax, Atlantic, Wilson Pickett, etc. Apart from being a slightly embarrassing fantasy of future success for his own group, the Redskins, it was quite an accurate prognosis. Groups like the Style Council, Kane Gang, Special AKA and Redskins suscribe to the current orthodoxy that black music alone is the legitimate base for protest. Allied with the sort of journalists whose every other word is “pride” and “dignity”, they have invested black music--60s and 70s soul, rap, African music, jazz--with qualities like “realism”, a certain out-going “health”, and a positivism of a specifically political slant. Hence the Redskins’ crusade against “miserabilism” (introspective rock groups like Joy Division, Echo & the Bunnymen, Cocteau Twins, the Smiths) a/k/a “Reds Against the Blues”, with its underlying notion that unemployment and oppression are more fitting subjects for pop than love, loss and the more existensial forms of alienation.

Hence also the Style Council/Respond strategy of clean, smart clothes, sunny videos, freshness, beatnik sleevenotes, French flirtations--the idea of optimism as resistance, of Style and Youth as some sort of weapon or victory in itself. Paul Weller has dropped the Who as model for political songs, in preference for early 70s disco (Curtis Mayfields’ “We’ve Got To Have Peace” and “Move On Up”, O’Jays “Love Train”, etc); likewise the Kane Gang’s ideal in agit-pop is the Staple Singers. In the Style Council/Redskins musical universe, funky tightness (“Soul-Deep”, “Money-Go-Round”), brassiness (“Keep On Keepin’ On”), even strings (the fake Philly “Shout it To the Top”) have become ciphers for rebellion, just as powerchord guitar and vocal snarl were for another generation. The soul preacher has merely taken the exact place of the rebel rocker. Relly, the summit of it all, the last word (let’s hope) is “Shout It to the Top”, with its sleevenotes:

Yes! to the thrill of the romp
Yes! to the Bengali Workers Assocation
Yes! to a nuclear free world
Yes! to all involved in animal rights
Yes! to fanzines
Yes! to belief

What use or interest is this hope, pride and joy? Why has so much threat been claimed for this affirmation?

What drives them all into the dead end that is the “return to blackness”? The path of imitation is littered with failures (ABC, Dexy’s, The Questions). Leave black music to the visionaries and the naturals--Womack, Jackson, Chaka--who can turn the banal into the paradisical. What seems more productive now is a rereading of white rock heritage--groups who commit violence to the texts of such as the Doors, Byrds, Velvets, Birthday Party, garage punk and psychedelia. We’re talking about music at third or fourth remove from the R&B source, perversions of perversions. It’s music that chafes at the tenet that black music alone has a hold on desire or rhythm; music ignorant of questions of responsibility, social conscience and the imperative of “upfulness” (a very narrow understanding of what black music “is all about” anyway), made by goups who see themselves as artists rather than propagandists, who deal in poetry rather than reportage.