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Early Electronic (Synth)Pop -Part the Second

After the ‘Canonical Six’, the electronic flood gates slowly began to open in 1979, the landmark British album of that year being the highly commercially successful Replicas by Tubeway Army. the second release by a duo who rapidly slimmed down to just Gary Numan himself. However influenced it was by David Bowie and Kraftwerk, Replicas remains an integrated, coherent and highly individual statement by a musician who has been unfairly maligned by the music press and fashionistas in general. The Human League followed Being Boiled and The Dignity of Labour (7″ and 12″ respectively) with their first album Reproduction, with Travelogue in 1980 and finally the massively popular, epoch-defining Dare in the following year, which cemented electronic pop in the public (and the record companies) mind as the ‘futuristic’ way forward for the music.

A duo who started off with a 1979 Factory single Electricity (first as FAC 6, and eventually released two further times), released their first full-length disc in February 1980, and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark duly became far too huge to retain their brief cult status. Many other small scale (in size) groups hit pay dirt over those years of 1979 - 1982:  Ultravox, John Foxx, Visage, Soft Cell, Depeche Mode. Germany took up the Kraftwerk mantle, and increased it’s critical stock, with DAF (their debut single, the great Kebabtraume came out on Mute Records), Der Plan, Einsturzende Neubaten - these acts linked up more, however, with the more avant-garde, experimental likes  of Cabaret Voltaire and Jim Thirlwell’s various Foetus incarnations. Interestingly, these two types sometimes overlapped and integrated - for example, Cabaret Voltaire ‘softened’ their approach over time, becoming more dance-friendly, to the point of having a minor hit with 1984′s funky Sensoria. Soft Cell and Depeche Mode retained their ‘edge’ over time, but managed to be huge unit-shifters, especially the latter, who have managed to hold the respect of both pop kids and their hipper older siblings.

Books have been written about the ‘second wave industrial’ bands (the first being our 1978 series of 7-inchers described in the last blog) - Charles Neal’s very early (1987) ‘Tape Delay’, Simon Ford’s biography of Throbbing Gristle, ‘Wreckers of Civilisation’ and, to repeat, Simon Reynolds’ ‘Rip It Up and Start Again’, which covers both wings of electronic popular music suggested above, the commercial and the not-so commercial. By 1984, the concluding year of Reynolds’ narrative, the ‘electronic’ genre has split into many and various sub-’scenes’: the ‘Mutant Disco’ manifestations on the Ze label in America (WasNotWas, etc); the ‘Hidden Reverse’ bands discussed by David Keenan in his book on Coil, Current 93 and Nurse With Wound; the developments in the clubs of Chicago, New York and Detroit, that would influence the ‘leisure activities’ of hundreds of thousands of young people all over the world.

I have always held the period of 1978-1982 in particularly high affection for many personal reasons, and for the music produced in popular music over those few years. Mark E.Smith, an important contributor to this treasure trove of innovations, described a plethora of “miserable songs synthesised”, on The Fall’s 1980 album Grotesque. There is some truth in this, of course, but the incredible number of recordings 7″ format, many of the beautifully presented in picture sleeves, did put some fun into it all (even if it was at times a rather po-faced scene), and it’s great to see that the electronica of those times has a distant relative in the music and presentation (mostly through an exemplary series of 10″ and 12″ singles) of today’s William Bevan, aka Burial. Here is the true keeper of the flame. of Thomas Leer and Robert Rental and The Normal?

Early electronic (synth)pop - a tribute. Part the First.

Writing my last blog on 90s electronica a few days ago inevitably bought me back to one of the genre’s predecessors, that peculiar explosion of ‘avant stars on 45′, from the years of 1978-82. Yes, I know that there were predecessors to these predecessors - wags often cite 1971′s Chirpy, Chirpy, Cheep, Cheep by the knowingly titled Middle of the Road as the first pop hit to be led by the synthesiser, the Roxy Music of Virginia Plain and Georgio Moroder’s work with the likes of Donna Summer on Love to Love You Baby and I Feel Love, and I’m sure that y’all out there can think of others, but there is a particular group of adventurous young electronic pioneers that gave us a series of highly unusual 45 rpm singles in the summer of 1978 whom I wish to celebrate in this blog. The fact that they all chose to use the 7″ format is a refection both of it’s importance in the punk and the post-punk period (approximately 1977 - 82) and how so many artists rose to the challenge of such a ‘restrictive’ presentation for their work.

The marvellous triple CD set on Ohm Records, The Early Pioneers of Electronic Music 1948-1980, ended with a nod to Brian Eno, with a track from On Land from the latter year. The discs are very much a tribute to the ‘straight’ side of electronic experimentation, featuring most of the canon of ‘contemporary classical’ beasts - Stockhausen, Dockstader, Babbitt, Oliveros, Xenakis, Ashley, Lucier, etc, - and is a must-have for it’s pulling together of so much essential modernist material, but Simon Reynolds, in his peerless ‘Rip It Up and Start Again’, did indeed make a new start, by describing a new sub-set of very young British groups and individuals who were combining electronic sounds and ‘pop’ elements into a new ‘pop’ format. As Simon put it, “in mid-1978, a curious spate of cultural synchrony meant that Warn Leatherette [by The Normal aka Mute’s Daniel Miller] appeared around the same time as several other lo-fi electronic singles, all released on indie labels” (page 99). I still remember the joy I felt at the time of the book’s publication, in 2005, that a significant music writer had finally recognised, in print, this indeed “curious spate” of incredibly unusual singles by a bunch of unknown, mostly provincial, groups. Being there at the time, I recall that, over two to three months, there seemed to about one release per week, and it is surely a series that deserves to be remembered and celebrated, forty or so years after. the main event.

I’ve decided to call this set of fantastic singles ‘The Canonical Six’. Although there were other great electronic’ pop- singles to come, these deserve grouping together, as Reynolds eventually did, as a nonpareil of DIY independence and ground-laying. So here they are, in no particular order:

Robert Rental and Paralysis/ACC. An album’s worth of material on a 7″, it remains an unprecedented achievement and would need an entire blog by itself to give it any justice. Now a forgotten figure, which is criminal.

Thomas Leer’s Private Plain/International. A mate of Rental’s, Leer’s first single is a companion piece to his. An ‘indie’ landmark, it is incredibly atmospheric, recorded in his Crouch End bedsit, the whispered vocals necessitated to the need to not awake his sleeping girlfriend, who was working in the morning.

Cabaret Voltaire’s EP, Extended Play. Another album-in-a-single, this (together with the first Factory record, A Factory Sampler) introduced most of us outside Manchester to the Cabs’ long career. The latter EP also made us aware of the potential of Joy Division.

The Human League’s Being Boiled was the calling card of one of the most important electronica acts of them all, and was like nothing else we had heard at the time.

Throbbing Gristle’s United/Zyklon B Zombie on Industrial Records (what the hell was that?) led us a bit up the garden path, with it’s pastoral hues on the first track. The ‘sick’ (in both senses of the word?) ‘B’ side was ultimately a more accurate glimpse of their schtick.

The Normal’s Warm Leatherette/TV OD was a Ballard miniature, back when Ballard was far from well-known. It’s auteur, Daniel Miller, made the record ‘single’-handedly in his Temple Fortune attic, in a similar fashion to Leer’s achievement. Miller went on to become one of the most influential figures of them all, with his Mute Label giving many of the pop electronica crowd their initial shots at fame.

To be continued...

IDM - twenty five years or so on

Dance music has never really been my thing, even though I used to be a reasonable enough dancer (my wife and I once won a ‘dance competition’ in Crouch End’s semi-famous Kings Head back in around 1994 or thereabouts, so I rest my case). As a consequence, house and techno music, ‘the second summer of love’ and club culture in general rather passed me by, and still does. I’m afraid that I’m in the ‘all this mindless techno bollocks sounds the same’ camp. I did make a bit of an exception to all this closed-mindedness, however, in the mid-nineties with ‘Trip Hop’ - Massive Attack, Tricky and Portishead especially - which was, really, c’mon y’all, a nod-out stoner sound, rather than one for happy feat, and then so-called ‘jungle’ (rapidly re-named as the less objectionable ‘drum and bass’). ‘Jungle’ led me on to a plethora of challenging beats and experimental artists, which seemed inexhaustible at the time. ‘Intelligent Dance Music’ (as opposed to what, ‘Thick as Pigshit Dance Music’?) had, by the new century, been subsumed within the more potentially judgement-free label, ‘Electronic Dance Music’, which is about as precise and specific as ‘hard rock’. Looking back, however, the mid to late-nineties period seems to have been some sort of ‘Golden Age’ for dance music aimed at the brain as well as the other erogenous zones.

At least this is how it looks to a relative outsider. Pete Frame-type charts describing how dance genres link up and multiply are some of the most complex of their kind, and use a language that I cannot use with any authority. But, as is the wont of those who feel intimidated by such challenging matrices, I am impelled to state, “but I know what I like!”. Reading recently the late Mark Fisher’s works on music has redirected me to the small, but powerful discography of Boards of Canada - four full-length albums and a tiny group of shorter products - who have remained largely silent since 2013′s Tomorrow’s Harvest. I have always lumped these two Scottish’s brothers with the very different (even in terms of the multiplicity and sheer amount of their recorded works) Autechre, another duo from more northern climes. ‘Less is More”is what BoC seemed to be saying, “More Is More” is what the Rochdale two seemed to offer as an alternative. 

It’s become my contention that Autechre’s more recent internet-based product (post- 2015), some of which apparently has to be chased down several rabbit hole fora and links on the net, seems to be a modern version of ‘vinyl hunts’, i,e, supporting the notion that listeners should have to make some effort to access material, rather than having it provided to them via a few money-free clicks on their laptop keyboard. But maybe that’s just my own daft  and dated interpretation. 

Whatever, all this carry-on has meant that 2013′s Exai (released on CD) was the last Autechre offering that I listened to. I have neither the patience or the knowledge to follow White Rabbits, with or without watch fobs, down hyperspatial tunnels. ‘You’re too old and my hair’s too long’, as Johnny Rotten memorably described the out-of-touch in 1976. Mind you, he then went on to say “I’m fat, I’m fifty and I’m back” in 2008, so maybe there’s hope for us all.

BoC have been linked to ‘hauntology’, a favourite music of Fisher’s, but I have heard little of this supposed genre that has matched the qualitative output of Sandison and Eoin (three vowels in four letters!). But hauntology came later, and I just want to celebrate a few of the post-Artificial Intelligence (Warp Records, 1992) electronic artists that I enjoyed, and that I intend to re-visit and re-enjoy, over the next few weeks - in no particular order then, we have Aphex Twin, Seefeel, Squarepusher (a rather time-locked figure perhaps?), Plaid, Mouse On Mars, U-Zig, the largely-forgotten Luke Vibert, in his Plug and Wagon Christ avatars, and Four Tet. The latter has recorded with Burial, who is still perhaps the greatest modern-day exponent of EDM? 

Discuss. There are, as ever, so many, many more that I have not mentioned. It would be lovely if an up-for-it writer could provide us all with a comprehensive overview of the nineties generation of EDM. Simon Reynolds, perhaps, who seems the most obvious candidate? And I don’t mean ‘post-rock’!!

Keith Jarrett - an Encomium

I got a text (“I got a text!!” seeming to be the rallying call of this summer) from my long-suffering wife Jackie a few days back, saying that she is enjoying the music of Keith Jarrett at her workplace, which has prompted me to remember how important the pianist was for me as a teenager beginning to explore the world of jazz and improvisation. He’s a controversial character, and has his fair share of detractors, who reckon he’s a chocolate box performer, improv-lite etc, but I am one of the many have loved much of his work throughout the years,

I came to Jarrett, as I’m sure many did, through Miles Davis’s band of the 1970-01 period, where he featured on electric organ, following his stint with Charles Lloyd’s celebrated quartet. Miles at Fillmore and Live-Evil were the albums (the latter of which hypertrophied into the 6-CD  Cellar Door Sessions many years later) that grabbed my attention, featuring as they did some of Miles’s most ferocious music. Following Jarrett’s trail, I discovered that he had released recent solo material, on a new-ish record label called ECM Records. Going to The Diskery, then in Hurst Street in central Birmingham, I found several ECMs, which were presented in attractive, fairly sparse covers, but which retailed at a predictably high price, well over two pounds each, which represented a lot of money for a schoolboy. You forget in these times of choice tyranny just how inaccessible albums like these were; you could handle the sleeves and maybe even get to hear some of the contents on the shop headphones, but a lot of material was just too expensive to get for your domestic consumption- Jarrett’s recordings were of this nature, but somehow I begged or borrowed enough to separately take both Ruta & Daitya (ECM 1021) and Facing You (ECM 1017) home with me. I still treasure these two landmark (for me) records, even though they are both flawed and far from Jarrett’s best,

Ruta & Daitya is an odd one, and represents a road not taken for Jarrett, who plays mostly organ, with bit of flute thrown in, in the company of Miles’s then -drummer, Jack de Johnette, on drums and hand-held percussion. I didn’t (and really still don’t) get this record, it’s minimal funk in parts but with an ongoing air of abstraction, and is like nothing else I’ve heard him do. Facing You is his first of countless solo acoustic piano pieces (still a fairly unusual format back then, although ECM had released Paul Bley’s classic solo Open To Love at about the same time), and sounds fairly ragged and tentative, compared with what was to come, but it was new ground for me, and I played them both to death.

Pay dirt came with the Bremen/Lausanne Concerts, released, I think, in 1975, originally an ECM triple vinyl set (and accordingly expensive once more, but at least I had a student grant to dip into by then). The first of Jarrett’s monster sets, I’ve always found this a more accomplished achievement than the more famous Koln Concert, which bankrolled ECM Records, and is the one which I’d recommend to the Jarrett newcomer, which now includes the missus. Jarrett, of course, went on to make a preposterous amount of recordings - the ‘American’ and ‘European’ quartets, brick-sized piano sets, Bach organ recitals, the long-lasting Standards Trio, ambitious written concerts such as Hymns/Spheres - you name it, Jarrett’s been there. An unfortunately lengthy bout of serious ill-health was the only thing that clipped his wings, but he is apparently back in business now. I tend to associate Keith Jarrett with an early stage of my development as a jazz fan, but it will be interesting to see whether my wife’s newfound love for his music will stimulate me to re-explore his material, old and new. I’m looking forward to it, actually.

Henry Cow and Other Hybrids

I have just completed the initial chapter of a new book on English seventies rock ‘eggheads’ Henry Cow, published by the highbrow Duke University Press and written by the equally highbrow (but very friendly) Benjamin Piekut. Reviewed in this month’s Wire, Phil England had this to say about the chapter in question: “Perhaps unnecessarily. two theoretical chapters bookend the main narrative, aiming to provide an academic contextualisation in terrains of activity that Piekut terms “feral experimentalism” and “the vernacular avant garde”. Now, I’m not sure if ‘experimentalism’ is an actual word, and ‘feral’ is the last one that I would associate with Henry Cow, to be frank (”like being savaged by a sheep”, as I believe someone once said in n entirely different context), but I found the chapter very rewarding as it impacts on ideas that have developed in my own writing. I have briefly discussed the convergence of the experimental and the ‘vernacular’ (I prefer the word ‘popular’) in both my last blog on these pages, and within my two books on English free improvisation. Piekut and I operate in different worlds, but there are many points of contact. We both love improv and we both love decent rock, and both feel that the two can interact successfully.. 

Piekut and I are fascinated by a particular time (late 60s/early 70s) and particular places (London, Chicago) and the way that rock music opened up to the influence of more experimental/avant garde forms post- ‘Revolver’ (or thereabouts). Furthermore, several of these years also dovetail with perhaps those most influential and formative years of age, 16 to 19, which in my case cover 1971-4. Rock was at its most malleable, mimetic and permeable  at that time, and Piekut mentions many of the acts that I was listening to intently to a late teenager. Rock music is now 64 years old (isn’t there a song in there somewhere?), so it’s not really surprising that the flexibility and sheer muscle that it (and I!) had as a teenager is no longer a feature. Piekut’s chapter bought to mind many of the band recordings that age does not seem to have withered. Henry Cow was certainly one of the groups concerned, and what is particularly notable is that most of the records involved from that time managed to be both transgressive and on major record labels. Lots of people actually bought the things, amazingly (maybe not so many shelled out for Henry Cow, thinking about it!!!)

So here are just a few of the recording artists whose hybrid works I was devouring in my last two years of school and the year after (no ‘gap years’ then, just a gap!) - to start with, the first two records by the Cow themselves (on Virgin Records, which performed a great service over the seventies, whatever one now thinks of it’s founder), Unrest (1974)in particular; The Mothers of Invention and Frank Zappa (up to, and obviously including, Hot Rats);; anything pre-Virgin Records (ironically) by Captain Beefheart and ‘his’ Magic Band(s); Pink Floyd (up to ‘Dark Side of the Moon); Soft Machine, up to the utterly peerless Third, which still sounds incredibly advanced in concept up to this day; anything by Miles Davis (1986-74); Can (up to and including Soon Over Babaluma); the early Faust albums, especially the eponymous first from 1971. 

It’s an incredible list and merely skims the surface of what was around, so I’ll certainly be reading the rest of Piekut’s book with considerable interest, which is titled “Henry Cow: the World is a Problem”. Some would say that the band itself was the problem, po-faced, dogmatic and knotty in the extreme, but what do they know? ‘Sense of humour’ is for another time.

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