Sunday, August 12, 2007

[Bring the Noise deleted scene #11]

VARIOUS ARTISTS, The Wailing Ultimate (Homestead)
Melody Maker, summer 1987

Most compilations are unlistenable by definition, because they’re motley. Colours clash, moods jar, idioms mingle promiscuously but unsuccessfully. This sampler from the Homestead roster works because of its consistency. Everything here is unrelentingly GREY--but this is the valiant grey of a Husker Du rather than the miserable grey of a Close Lobsters or Shrubs, grey by choice rather than grey by default. And everything is designed to appeal to masochist sensibilities, ears that will never tire of being brutalized.

There’s so much talent in evidence here, bands that could be Sonic Youths or Big Blacks (the latter represented here by “Il Duce”) in chrysalis. In the US right now there seems to be a genuinely productive interface between punk and the legacy of hippiedom, bands like the Butthole Surfers, Meat Puppets, Sonic Youth. Over here all we’ve got is post-goth nouveau blues boogie, plus all that Grebo shite. Maybe because the British way is to soak things up as a look, a lifestyle.

The Homestead bands pictured on the sleeve look like slobs, wear stained tee-shirts, garish Hawaian shirts, scuffed jeans: they could be from anywhere or any era. They look like they always looked like this. The energy British bands put into camp attention to period detail, into looking cool, these bands put into chilling the blood.

Several shades of grey here. There’s the weird shit, songs that are like multiple pile-up collisions between idioms. Dinosaur are what I imagine Meat Puppets would sound like if they came from a steel town rather than the desert: psychedelic impulses struggling up through the slag and smog to kiss the sky. Volcano Suns’s “White Elephant” has this riff like lightning striking in Morse Code, then mutates into a hybrid of Black Flag and Orange Juice. Antietam’s “In A Glass Code” is perhaps the most schizo-eclectic of the lot, its fractures and tangents managing to spike our attention thanks to the bleak, folkadelic wail of Tara Key. There’s virtuoso noise from Phantom Tollbooth (raga spasms, Mahavishnu somersaults), Squirrel Bait (“they flash a proud marble”) and Live Skull (veil upon veil of detuned guitar haze). There’s brutish, heavy-handed power pop (of a sort) from Breaking Circus, Naked Raygun and The Reactions, coarse wedges of horizon.

Last word to Great Plains, who close things up with the hilarious spoof “Letter To a Fanzine”. On the sleeve, singer Ron House claims: “With the possible exception of The New Seekers, I don’t think there’s been any band with less soul than Great Plains. Whether you definite ‘soul’ as the ‘certitude of essence’, ‘the way James Brown moves’, or ‘the pride in your own value’, we don’t have it”. The groups on The Wailing Ultimate may lack soul; what they possess in abundance is lack. This is music whose energy does not stem from a complacent sense of “pride and dignity”, but from frustration and doubt.

[Bring the Noise deleted scene #10]

BAD BRAINS, Hammersmith Clarendon, London
Melody Maker, May 16th 1987

Bad Brains double-stun with the tidal wave of their sound and the shock of their incongruity--imagine Burning Spear playing Anthrax. But the link up of Rasta and speedcore is totally appropriate: both subcultures have a total vision of the world as unremitting tribulation and slavery, both imagine liberation in the form of apocalypse. Bad Brains’ music similarly seems to consist in absolutes--of gravity, velocity, heat, cold. Blacks invented rock’n’roll in the first place, so it’s fitting that they’re here at its outer limits, presiding over its ultimate supernova, its whitest white-out. Their singer HR slashes out the beat with an outstretched arm, and it’s like he’s conducting the orbit of planets.

The shows are slick, as tautly rehearsed as The Temptations or Zapp, right down to glib intersong chat. An intensely glamorous bunch--HR lashes the air with his dreadlocks, guitarist Dr. Know wears a permanent gape of joy at his own brilliance, Darryl Jennifer the bassist’s bug eyes and Clinton eyebrows say “I can’t believe we’re doing this!”.

In a way, there’s nothing of themselves in the music, it’s anti-authentic: Bad Brains take the form of hardcore and perfect (exaggerate) it to the point where it’s abstract art.

Such a fastidious assault, so exact, so exacting. Bad Brains are about astounding musicianship crammed within rigid parameters, and so blazing all the more brightly. HR brings an almost scat feel to the straight-ahead melodies, throws in all manner of swerves and dips). Similarly the emotional intensity of Bad Brains, of hardcore in general, comes from when energy is caged, richochets off the walls.

Bad Brains were like a visitation, a bolt from the heavens, and the vast sexless apocalypse of their music left even the grubbiest, most lumpen members of their congregation cleansed, elevated, reborn.

[Bring the Noise deleted scene #9]

THE SKINNY BOYS, interview
Melody Maker, March 28 1987

by Simon Reynolds

There’s an argument in circulation right now that claims the development of the 12-inch single was a more significant pop revolution than punk rock: the 12 inch’s wider grooves allowed for the rise of techniques like mixing and scratching, thus giving birth to hip hop, the sole vanguard of futuristic music left in the Eighties.

Well, this argument is not without polemical merit (unprivileging rock’s sacred cows, rewriting history as ammunition in contemporary struggles, etc) but what strikes me as bogus and itself rockthink is the association of a musical style with moral superiority. Certainly, hip hop/12-inch culture amounts to a revolution in the formal possibilities for music, but if hip hop proves anything, it’s there is no necessary link between musical radicalism and social radicalism, form and content.

Hip hop is an avant-garde wet dream: here is a popular music based around minimalism, dissonance, the supercession of melody and harmony in favour of great slabs and splurges of sound. But it is inadvisable to read into hip hop’s irreverence for musical rules/copyright laws/stylistic integrity, any evidence of resistance to authority.

If the formal irreverence of hip hop is a metaphor for anything, it’s not radicalism, but nihilism. Hip hop’s social consciousness is hardly progressive, rather it’s thoroughly entrenched in American capitalist ideas of self-definition through competition/acquisition/one-upmanship.

And in its more extreme manifestations, the hip hop imagination is drawn to the language of criminamlity--think of Schoolly D, Run DMC’s gangster imagery, Public Enemy (“I’ll show you my gun/My Uzi weighs a ton”). Crime isn’t a subversion of capitalism, but its caricature: an alternative means to the symbols of status used by those for whom conventional channels are blocked by inequality and prejudice.

Criminality is part of hip hop’s fantasy vocabulary because it’s a metaphor of total possibility. In this, hip hop reminds me of nothing so much as punk’s anti-social individualism/”so many ways to get what you want”/anarchist-Antichrist attitude. What’s happened is that hip hop’s psychic extremism has found a perfect expression for itself in avant-garde assault--a mindfuck of a marriage.

All this suggest that hip hop’s “radicalism” is, at best, ambiguous, destructive rather than constructive. Just like punk, in fact. What’s also daft is the implication that to celebrate hip hop necessitates a denigration of rock. This kind of thinking in oppositions is itself a punk hangover. It’s especially inappropriate considering that hip hop increasingly has far more in common with punk/heavy metal/the rock avant-garde (aggressive self-projection, the pursuit of bedlam and oblivion, NOISE) than it does with soul (the expression of desire and loss with poise and dignity, yawn).

Just take the Skinny Boys. Their debut album Weightless, released late last year, had cuts heavier and grislier than anything so far thrown up by rock Noisists like Age of Chance, Test Dept, Ciccone Youth. The Skinny Boys are an example of an astonishing co-incidence between hardcore hop hop and hardcore rock--a similarity not just of effect, but of texture too.

The Skinny Boys are mindblowing. Take a hardcore B-boy track like “Rip the Cut”. Far too slow to dance to, based around a single drone-riff that sounds like someone puking up down a deep well, this monstrous snail of idiocy crushes your consciousness like a scrap-metal compressor. The Skinny Boys seem to be striving to produce the same impact on the listener as hardcore groups like Big Black or Black Flag--a state of aphasia or speechless oblivion, not so much beyond dance as beneath it, perhaps equivalent to the hip hop expression “cold getting dumb”. The only possible response to this kind of music is frozen immobility, “chillin’ in the B-boy stance”.

The Skinny Boys quirk out. A track like “Weightless”, with its eerie, disembodied edit of a little girl’s voice, its waddling rhythm, its farty swell of bass, its human beatbox solo (Dadaesque bodymusic), is as surreal and downright hostile to meaning as anything Beefheart or Pere Ubu have produced.

The Skinny Boys kick ass
. “Feed Us the Beat” could be Black Sabbath--a migraine-morose abyss of sound, powered by a drone-riff like a kick in the guts. But whereas Run DMC, LL Cool J and Beastie Boys weld metal guitar onto their sound (the Beasties pilfering the riff from Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf” for “Rhymin’ and Stealin’”) the Skinny Boys do it all with scratch (and various studio techniques they are understandably reluctant to divulge).

Again, the “pleasure” of this music seems to be concussive, bashing your brains out, inducing a state of wigged-out catatonia. It suggests an appealing fantasy: if hop hop continues along this course of development, can it be long before we see long tongues, make-up, chainsaws and flamethrower codpieces, barbiturates, Satanism, becoming de rigeur? The Occult would be a logical destination for a subculture that already inverts values, so that “treacherous”, “ill,” “wicked, “damage” all become good things.

Meeting the Skinny Boys in the flesh brings me down from these delirious heights with a swift and ignominious bump. I came expecting to meet three surly monsters of hip hop rock. I find instead three polite, rather sweet brothers, into wholesome pursuits like bowling and basketball. Super Jay is 19 and the DJ of the group. Jock Box is 17 and their human beatbox. Shockin’ Shaun is 18 and the MC. Accompanying them are cousins Rhonda and Mark Bush, who are a bit older and who produce/write for/manage the Skinny Boys. This is a close-knit, family operation--the little girl on “Weightless” is daughter Chrystal Kiayonda Bush. A nice, thoroughly decent, thoroughly American family, from Bridgeport, Connecticut, just outside New York.

It’s unavoidable, I guess, that white rock critics invariably misrecognise black music, bending it to fit their fantasies and schemes. But talking to the Skinny Boys I sometimes wonder if they actually feel their music differently to me. To me, Skinny Boys music is mad; I place it alongside classics of teenage dementia like The Eyes’ “When the Night Falls” or The Groupies’ “Primitive”, music that makes me feel murderous. But I suspect the Skinny Boys see their music as simple entertainment, part of showbiz. Here are some of the things they tell me:

“It all pays off in the end, if you work hard”

“We want a gold album”

“We try to appeal to everyone. We have commercial cuts. We have hardcore B-boy cuts--we’ve got a “Rip the Cut Part Two” coming up. We’ve got a heavy metal track. We even got a jazz cut on this LP.”

“The Skinny Boys like good clean music, so people of all kinds can enjoy it--little kids, middle-sized kids, grown-ups.”

“We respect all entertainers. But we have favourites--LL Cool J, Run DMC, Whodini, Monkees. Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Janet… too many people.”

“Hello London!”

“People see rap as a load of violence and stuff, but what we’re saying in our music is that you’ve got to have ‘Unity’. No matter what colour you are, you’re our brother, y’know.”

Maybe I got it all wrong. Or perhaps The Skinny Boys have a perfect grasp of the form of hip hop, and just don’t need to live out the fantasy. But when “Rip the Cut” rends my flesh, when I catch lyrics like--“When I walk on the stage/I’m like the mainman/Hitler” and “I’m like Jaws/the killer shark/I rip the skin off our face”--am I wrong in thinking that something odd is going on here? Isn’t this a strange kind of fun?

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

[Bring the Noise deleted scene #8]

"End of the Track", albums round up column
New Statesman, February 13th 1987

Funk Flesh + Punk Attitude: this was the fantasy that possessed the rock intelligentsia in the early Eighties. The result was a series of creative misrecognitions of black pop. Groups like Style Council and the Redskins made soul the vehicle for their politics of affirmation. Others (Talking Heads, Cabaret Voltaire, 23 Skidoo, A Certain Ratio) staged a remotivation of funk, replacing its extrovert upfulness with art rock concerns: alienation, breakdown, psychosis. Typically there was fascination with both the technocratic system of Western modernity and the breaking loose of instincts suppressed by that system.

These concerns gave birth to difficult dance music, more suited to cerebral contemplation in the bedroom than mindless frugging on the dancefloor; as Simon Frith put it, “It’s still the progressive rock mentality, but applied to rhythm, as opposed to melody and harmony.’ Avant-funk was a kind of psychedelia, but oblivion was to be attained not through rising above the body, rather through immersion in the physical, self loss through animalism. Underneath it all was a na├»ve identification of Blackness with unrepression.

The genre has long seemed played out; as David Stubbs puts it: “pub rock for the 22nd century”. Strange, then, at this late hour, to encounter an unexpected validation of the genre, a pinnacle evne. Such is Skinny Puppy’s Mind the Perpetual Intercourse (Play It Again Sam). The familiar motifs and signatures as all present: Eurodisco rhythms; synthesizers used to generate not pristine, hygienic textures, but poisonous, noisome filth; Burroughs’ cut-up technique applied to found voices. But they are redeemed, renewed, by the sheer saturated intensity of their application. The beat can barely make its way through the congestion, the concatenation of impacted gristle, blistered and smeared surfaces, swarf, funk dregs. Cevin Key’s voice is extraordinary, suggesting expectoration, haemorrhage and self-immolation all at once.

The Age of Chance are also aiming for a noise/funk collision. But where Skinny Puppy is gratuitous and inconsequential, luxuriating in the voluptuousness and aggravation of sound itself, Age of Chance are one of those groups who make the mistake of starting with a theory and then attempting to live it out. Granted, they have a good point to make: their cover of Prince’s “Kiss” and The Trammps’ “Disco Inferno” on Crush Collision (Fon) are pointed gestures against the introversion and anti-disco prejudice of the inbred indie scene. They want to evangelise for the adventurousness and hardness of modern black pop. But outside this indie context, the songs lose their polemical meaning; are, at best, only mildly amusing novelty records; at worst, juiceless travesties of the sublime originals. Nonetheless, thanks to a knack for slogans and a corporate image and demeanour that suggest intensive immersion in Positive Thinking and assertiveness training, they’ve managed to blag themselves the status of an Event; winning, in the process, a small chart hit and a contract with Virgin.

Their music is a case of rhetoric triumphing over substance. Fibres of meaning interpenetrate every strand of sound, so that the experience reaches us already placed in a general scheme, overdtermined and thus domesticated. Oblivion (the ecstatic obliteration of meaning) is forestalled because we are constantly made aware that the song is a statement, a reaction against. In themselves, Age of Chance are neither exotic figures nor superior technicians. But then they subscribe to the widely-held, punk-descended view that ‘attitude’ is far more important than talent. Attitude means brazenness, the will to power, to bigotry. Attitude usually boils down to--all mouth and no trousers.

The funny thing is that black pop--devoid of theory, operating outside the rock press discourses that generate scams like Age of Chance--is throwing up music that paralles and exceeds the ambitions of avant-funk. Hip hop is impelled forward only by its dynamic towards greater impact--heavier beats, more daring and alarming cut-ups, new noise quotients. Take Salt-N-Pepa’s Hot, Cool and Vicious (Next Plateau). Producer Herbie Luv Bug constructs the music by sampling from a variety of “old school” grooves and breaks. Wholly inconsistent styles and ambiences, plucked from random points throughout pop history, are bolted together (just like Frankenstein’s neck, in fact). The effect is psychedelic, because any kind of narrative continuity, focus or identity is fragmented, dissipated--affording the listener plenty jouissance, ecstatic confusion.

The Skinny Boys’ Weightless (Warlock) takes a different route to oblivion--concussion. Drum machine, human beatbox and scratch are used to make noise as mindmangling as that produced by avant-garde groups like Test Dept or Einsturzende Neubauten. “Feed Us the Beat” actually sounds like Black Sabbath.

And hip hop can comfortable match avant-funk in psychic extremity. Female duo Salt-N-Pepa practically trip out on ‘attitude’; their fantasies of triumph and revenge make Age of Chance lool like milksops. (Their riposte to rappers who ‘bite’, i.e. copy, their style is a promise to “burn you and leave your ashes smoking”!). Where avant-funk enacts a theatre of psychosis, hip hpo seems vertiginously close to its reality, possessed by the kind of predatory, paranoid self induced by drugs like PCP (aka angel dust).

Skinny Boys and Skinny Puppy are signals that hip hop and avant-funk are on the brink of total seizure, the point at which dance music snarls up rhythmically beyond any functional utility. B-Boys no longer dance to hip hop, they stand, inert, arms folded across the chest, head tilted, gaze supercilious. And they nod their heads slightly to the beat. How long before the return of wigged-out catatonia?


Friday, August 03, 2007

[Bring the Noise deleted scene #7]

The 10th Anniversary of Punk
Melody Maker, Xmas Issue Year's End Overview, December 20/27 1986

Throughout late ’85, you got the feeling that people were shaping up in their minds as to what was gonna be the coolest response to the tenth birthday of You Know What. Some people decided to go iconoclastic--so you got people like Neil Taylor (NME) and the Legendary Stud Brothers (Melody Maker) dropping the occasional snipe to the effect that the whole affair has been insubstantial and overrated and just not worth considering in ’86. Some went one better and said nothing at all, although they circulated a soulboy rewrite of history--all the while it was slavering over punk the music press should have been covering something far more important: the invention of the 12 inch single, the development of black dance production techniques, the birth of rap. See, their argument that that white rock was finished and black music was the future would have been weakened if they admitted that rock could ever have mattered.

A few went to the other extreme, and claimed that the only vibrant music being created in ’86 was by punk veterans--John Lydon with PiL’s “Rise” and the brilliant Album, Tony James and Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Mick Jones and Big Audio Dynamite, Billy Idol…

But punk was far, far too precious to the music press to escape laborious reappraisal and reminiscence. As Jon Savage has pointed out, punk part depended on and part created the power of the music press. In 1977, with most live performance suppressed, the indie DIY scene yet to really blossom, scant radio and TV coverage--the music press was the only means of access to punk. (Apart from John Peel, who also benefited enormously). The music press was what sustained the whole mirage that something was happening, and fed that out to the provinces, directly inspiring local initiatives.

So we got a whole spate of wistful glances back, a platoon of veteran hacks shaking off mothballs to discourse on Their Finest Hour. “By God, we mattered then!”. The only significant absentees were Julie Burchill and Malcolm McLaren, funnily enough--both moved to bigger things (being a political columnist for the Mail on Sunday and working in Hollywood respectively). We got G-Mex, Jamie Reid’s exhibition, Don Letts’ movie re-released, Sid and Nancy, repeats of So It Goes. The general tone of commentary was personalistic, nostalgic and under-illuminating. Just about the only intelligent commentary came from Jon Savage, in The Face, who reminded us that punk lacked traditional political alignment and argued that early punk had more in common with the art-bohemianism of Warhol’s Factory than with raw street protest. Punk was utopian, not pragmatic, demanding total possibility.

What was missing from the retrospectives was a sense of the extent to which pop ’86 is structured by punk. Pop-writing and pop-making scurries around the absence left by punk, searching to regenerate that lost unity of alienation. (Hence the abortive attempts to float the shambling scene as the Next Big Thing, or the misguided claim that hip hop is a black punk). But this unity was actually a glorious fluke, based as it was around a word, “punk”, that meant different things to different people. The post-punk fragmentation has seen the continuation of these debates as to the meaning and scope of punk (in effect, what music is for, what power it can have).

One view of punk sees that power as potentially constructive, believing that punk was essentially a confrontational dose of reality, hurled at the brainwashing media by angry, uppity proles. A lineage that extends from The Jam and the Clash through Tom Robinson and Rock Against Racism through the Specials to Red Wedge’s Paul Weller and Billy Bragg Show. 1977’s righteous denunciation has developed into the idea of subversion through affirmation--“shout it to the top” till “the walls come tumblin’ down”

The other major interpretation of punk sees it as destructive and iconoclastic--a form of cultural terrorism, or even, at its broadest, a revolt against the limits of life itself. This view of punk stresses its debt to glam rock’s theatricality, to utopian anarchists like the Situationists, to art school ideas about outrage. Here punk’s aim wasn’t just to scandalize the outside world, but to disturb the audience too, destabilize their common sense ideas of self-control. A lineage that stretches from the Sex Pistols and Siouxsie through PiL and Joy Division to… well, in some distant way, maybe both ZTT and Morrissey have that punk impatience with the world and demand for the impossible.

One place there wasn’t much commemoration was in the wider media. Ten years on and there’s still enough of a sting to make them want to pretend it never happened.