“I Can’t Stand My Baby” by The Rezillos - a Punk Madeleine?

For some reason best known to my subconscious, I pulled down from the rack of my singles, I Can’t Stand My Baby by the Scottish band The Rezillos, released in the Punk Autumn of 1977, and it took me back, as being somewhat emblematic of that brief period when it seemed possible that music would return to some degree of ‘authenticity’ (inverted commas are deliberately sarcastic). This was a gaudy package from an independent label (Sensible Records) by an unknown band of very basic musical ability, but with a ‘twist’ or an’angle’ which made it stand out from the very crowded field of hopefuls at that particular time. In fact, they were a bunch of no-hopers, who happened to just catch the crest of the punk wave of that summer, through a clever use of signifiers and a catchy, if hardly inspirational, song. Somehow it’s snotty negativity was in tune with the brief, mannered nihilism of that time, and they (in a later iteration, the Revillos) managed to eke out a’ career in music’ for some years after.

Older readers will no doubt find other examples of ‘pop punk’ in 1977 - The Vibrators’ ‘Baby, Baby’ also springs to mind. But this Rezillos product (and it was a product) remains particularly redolent for me. For instance, it had a lime green cover, which was fine by the time of The Cramps a couple of years later, but which was striking in its ‘bad taste’ in 1977. It was a fashionably ‘anti-love’ song, but was clearly humorous in intent, using the negating ‘No’ as a modish highlight (as opposed to ‘Yeah, Yeah, Yeah’). (And a rather self-conscious use of  the regional word ‘radge’, which most of us softie southerners had never heard of!) Not forgetting the utterly disingenuous “This Is Uncool!!”  The ruthless cut-off at the end reminds me curiously (and rather fancifully) of the use of such studio devices in the early free improv ‘second generation’ album Teatime (1975). This was as opposed to the ‘fade out’ schema, favoured by more ‘impressionistic’ producers.

My wife (born 1961) often reminds me that ‘punk music’ was started in London by ‘Art School types’ (as was, in its turn, ‘Hippie Music’?) A 1970 album by the poet Pete Brown and his short-lived band Piblokto! (much more commercial than his Battered Ornaments project) was called Things May Come and Things My Go, But the Art School Dance Goes On Forever, a title that certainly applies to the early punk scene. I could go on about this forever, but bands like The Monochrome Set and The Television Personalities (never mind The Not Sensibles) were in many ways ‘arty clever-dicks’. And that’s before considering the ‘born before 1955′ crew, acts like Elvis Costello. The Stranglers and The Only Ones, who made their names as ‘punks’ (meta-punks, even?), but who were, in fact anything but.

The B-side of our Rezillos track was Lennon/McCartney’s I Wanna Be Your Man (immortalised by The Rolling Stones), so there was a ‘knowing’ aspect to these Art Schoolers (like the Pistol’s covering Small Faces and Who numbers).. The wonderful sleeves of the 45s of this time of 1977 were often a backwards reference to 50s and 60s singles and albums (Costello’s 1980 Get Happy!!! being only the most obvious). ‘Punk’ was never a ‘pure’ creature: the ‘I Hate Pink Floyd’ stance was always constantly being diluted by the very artists who were supposed to be celebrating this ‘movement’. (Even as early as February 1977, Television’s Marquee Moon was seen as ‘betraying’ Punk, with it’s guitar solos and whatnot.) Punk’s ‘Year Zero’ was clearly a load of contradictory nonsense right from the get-go. By Magazine’s 1978 sophomore record, Secondhand Daylight, Pink Floyd were a genuine reference point.

Thankfully. ‘Post Punk’ gave us some genuinely challenging music, from Pere Ubu and Public Image onwards, after a year or so of mostly the opposite. I can’t stand my baby is a brief reminder of what we hoped Punk could be, short, sharp and just a little bit shocking.

Howard’s Way: Riley at 78

It happens to be Howard Riley’s birthday today (born 16th. February 1943), something that I only found out, fortuitously, on commencing this piece. He remains one of our finest-ever pianists, and has stuck with the acoustic version of the instrument: as far as I know, he has never explored the electric piano or any other electronic keyboard, unlike the late Keith Tippett, who famously played the former on his celebrated contributions to King Crimson’s output in the early 70s. Pete Lemer (born 1942) is perhaps the last surviving member of his peer group, Stan Tracey (1926-2013) was arguably the greatest pianist of the previous generation, and of the younger crop, Alexander Hawkins seems to be very convincingly stepping up to this (tem)plate.

The occasion for the blog is an hour-long conversation that I was lucky enough to have with Riley on Saturday afternoon just gone. I felt honoured to have a chance to exchange a few ideas with this great musician, whose health has not been good over the past few years, but who I did manage to catch live relatively recently (remember live gigs?) in a reconfigured Howard Riley Trio, at The Vortex a couple of years back, with Barry Guy and the Swiss percussionist Lucas Niggli. Now, Niggli is a fantastic drummer, but wouldn’t it have been great to have seen Tony Oxley in the drum seat (or even Paul Lytton), both of whom occupied that position (Lytton only on occasion) in the early iterations of the Trio, in the late 60s/early 70s? “Time slides down the wall” (a Dali-esque image that paraphrases John Cooper Clarke) might be an appropriate image for such a meeting?

Riley’s memory, whatever he might think, appeared to me to be fairly unclouded, especially as we were largely discussing events from around 50 years ago. (We were mulling over his input into the Musicians’ Cooperative, for my ongoing project on that very subject.) He clearly remains justifiably proud of the accomplishments of his classic trio, across a decade of performing and recording. (The Howard Riley Trio released around 8/9 nearly faultless albums, that mixed free improv with composed material, the latter a feature that the pianist was at pains to remind me of.) As a series, these recordings can compare to Andrew Hill’s ‘run’ of Blue Notes throughout the 60s, and those of Paul Bley’s various small groups, across six decades. 1970′s The Day Will Come, which garnered a Cook/Morton ‘crown’, is generally considered to be one of the pinnacles of British jazz (of whatever idiom), with Barry Guy on double bass duties and the grossly underrated Alan Jackson on the traps. (And there were four more decades of recordings still to come from Riley, in group and solo formats.) The Trio’s subsequent Flight, from 1971, replaces Jackson with Oxley, whp proved to be an entirely different metro(g)nomic presence.

At 78 years of age, Howard can look back at a jazz/improv life well lived, both as a recording artist and as a regular live performer. (His Trio was one of the only consistent live ‘acts’ in the early free improvisation years, and it regularly performed at many universities and colleges, in support of the many and various ‘progressive rock’ bands of the era, to which Barry Guy’s detailed diaries attest.)

I’d hence like to wish him a ‘happy birthday’, and sincerely hope that his music will become even more recognised than it is already. As with Andrew Hill, Paul Bley and (even?) Herbie Nichols, the sometimes dark, melancholic hues of his music have potentially robbed him of wider recognition. Thelonious Monk is the guiding spirit here, as it is/was for so many pianistic modernists, and this is the bar at which Howard Riley should be ultimately judged.

A Groovy Chick (Corea)

And so, another meta-obituary., so shortly after that for John Russell.

I found out this morning about the passing of Chick Corea on Tuesday of this week, at the grand age of 79, leaving in his ‘wake’ recordings that span six decades. Corea really only impinged on my listening life for a couple of years, 1973 and  1974, but, as with all musicians who enter one’s sphere of influence in the teenage years, however briefly, their work can leave a profound mark, and so it was with myself and Chick Corea. This short piece thus cannot pretend to any degree of an longitudinal overview, which will no doubt be provided by many other writers, but this is my own small acknowledgement of his undoubted richly deserved place in the room of ‘jazz greats’.

Like so many others of my generation, I first came across the (electric, or should that be eclectic?) piano work of Chick Corea on those pivotal Miles Davis albums, 1968′s Filles de Kilimanjaro (on two tracks only, however), 1969′s In a Silent Way, and Bitches Brew/Live at Fillmore from 1970. I was entranced by the keyboard tapestries created by Corea, Joe Zawinul, Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett, shimmering fields that provided the underlay for Miles’s magic carpet. As with Jarrett (whose recording career also now sadly, through illness, appears to be at its end), I moved towards the then-nascent ECM Records to explore what mischief these two great young keyboardists were getting up to elsewhere.

Jarrett had produced his very first solo album Facing You and Ruta + Daitya  (with Jack de Johnette) in 1971, two much less grandiose projects than the Miles Experiment, and Chick came up with two discs of miniature masterpieces, Solo Piano Improvisations 1 + 2 , also in the same year. I was entranced by these albums, as I was generally with all the early ECM recordings (1969-1973), which also include the Corea trio with Dave Holland and Barry Altschul called A.R.C. (ECM 1009), a direct precursor to the short-lived quartet Circle (basically A.R.C. + Anthony Braxton) and their epochal double album Paris Concert (ECM 1018/9), which was about as far-out as Corea ever got. Growing tensions between Corea’s more ‘commercial’ ambitions and Braxton’s ‘concept’, and, perhaps linked to this, the former’s enthusiastic adoption of Scientology, led to a fracture after only a few months. (Corea went on his merry way to considerable popular successes (L. Ron, rather than Freddie Hubbard?), and the Chicagoan took Holland and Altschul on a more more ascetic journey (i.e to the celebrated Braxton Quartets of the mid-1970s, with Kenny Wheeler and George E. Lewis). The mid-70s iteration of the Return To Forever ‘elektric band’ left most of us in little doubt as to which group was the more creative and challenging, but ‘challenging’ was seldom the ‘clear’ Corea’s main motivation. 

Corea stayed with ECM for the marvellous Return to Forever (ECM 1022), which was a perfect meeting of post-bop jazz and Spanish(ish) tinges, and which remains one of ECM’s ‘instant classics’. I lost interest with Corea soon after, disappointed with his subsequent Light as a Feather (again with Flora Purim and Airto Moreira), moving on to other musical challenges in that most amazing of eras for recorded musics. I did, however, manage to catch a slightly later iteration of Corea’s subsequent Return to Forever (in 1974, perhaps, with Bill Connors and Lenny White, I think?), but came away more impressed with the supporting band, none other than the good old ‘chin-scratch modernists’, Henry Cow. Corea, of course, like Hancock and Jarrett (the latter with indecent haste), eventually returned to the acoustic piano and jazz’s ‘classical virtues’, as it were, but I’ll always remember him as portrayed on the 1970 Isle of Wight ‘Call It Anything’ performance by the Miles Davis septet of the time, all hunched up intensity and exhilaration, a young pianist who knew he was going places (and had been since his earliest recordings in 1966). 

Here was a jazz musician, who will engender many much-deserved tributes to a variegated career, across a range of styles and idioms. His enthusiastic adoption of Scientology many years ago makes some of us wonder whether this was some sort of puzzling oyster grit, but I always like it when an artist leaves a degree of ambiguity in his legacy (even if  L. Ron Hubbard’s schtick was unambiguous in the extreme). Corea left much joy in his many recordings, and that very much should be enough, and very much what he wasnted.

Alexander Hawkins: ‘Music for 16 Musicians’, the Latest Instalment of a Long Debate?

Alexander Hawkins’ new, large-scale work, Music for Sixteen Musicians provides a capacious alembic for the pianist’s alchemy, and has been given a very comprehensive review by Daniel Spicer in this month’s Wire (February 2021). These comments are therefore merely a few extra thoughts to add to Daniel’s.

I’m a massive fan of Hawkins, and he must now surely be our most distinguished keyboard player? (Tracey and Tippett having passed, and with Howard Riley now sadly largely incapacitated) This latest (along with his other recent solo, duet and quartet recordings) is released on the Swiss Intakt label, which was initially set up to provide an outlet for another distinguished pianist, Irene Schweizer, but is probably best known for it’s cataloguing of Barry Guy’s London Jazz Composers Orchestra (LJCO) records. Guy’s interest in, and love of, classical music (of all stripes, especially Baroque, and apart from 19th century Romanticism) is well known, and the LJCO’s use of symphonic structures reflects this, so I was interested to note the label’s turning towards Hawkins, whose versatility and open-minded musical catholicism match Guy’s, (Intakt and the LJCO have now parted company, just to say.) I also noted the album’s similar typography to that of ECM Records, whose version of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians is particularly resonant here. Another ECM recording that I am drawn back to, as a point of comparison, is Roscoe Mitchell’s Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2 & 3 (ECM 1872), another extended work that co-situates jazz/free improvisation with what Martin Davidson called ‘European non-improvised art music’ (ENIAM) in John Wickes’ history of British modern jazz.

Daniel Spicer describes the similarity of the first track to Gyorgy Ligeti’s ‘Lontano’, and James Fei, who writes the notes for the record sleeve, cites Luciano Berio’s ‘Sequences’’ as a reference point that should be familiar to the ‘Hawkins generation’ (my own expression). Now, ENAM is not really my field, but from what I can gather, Berio’s compositions give room for ‘extended techniques’ for various instruments (connecting it directly to the free improvisation grid?). Barry Guy has recorded an interpretation for double bass of ‘Sequenza XIV’ (originally intended for the cello),’’Sequenza VII’, originally aimed at the oboe, has been reworked for soprano saxophone. (Not by Evan Parker, incidentally, but you get the point.) Barry Guy has expressed his love of Krzysztof Penderecki (to whom parts of the recording under discussion bear some comparison to) and Iannis Xenakis (whose work for solo double bass, ‘Theraps’, he has performed successfully, even to the high standards demanded by it’s composer). Derek Bailey and John Stevens regularly cited Anton Webern as an admired influence. Although both John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen claimed to despise improvisation as an informing influence, the latter’s Aus Dem Sieben Tagen was improvisation by a different name, and the former’s ‘prepared piano’ has provided generations of free improvisers with a methodology. To return to the theme of one of my recent blogs. Eddie Prevost’s latest book, ‘An Uncommon Music for the Common Man’ explored potential overlaps between free improv and ‘modern’ classical music. (much of which is now nearly 100 years old!).

To my under-qualified ears, Music for16 Musicians demonstrates a more seamless syncretism (if we have to use such a word) than Roscoe Mitchell’s ‘improvisation’, meaning no disrespect to the latter’s axis of some of London and Chicago’s finest improvisers. 16 Musicians uses the talents of the Riot Ensemble, who generally, as far as I can ascertain, are one of several string quartets who mainly perform ‘contemporary classical’ as a living, but are also very flexible and polymorphic when they want to be. It also employs Evan Parker, who very neatly acts as a link to Mitchell’s Transatlantic Art Ensemble. (Parker performs, along with Barry Guy and Paul Lytton, on Composition/Improvisation 1,2 & 3.) Both of these two  works are significant achievements, but for me (at least initially, I only got the album a few days back), Hawkins’ work feels like the ‘jazz/improv’ side hasn’t been essentially rinsed out. (As it has, for example, in Ornette’s string-driven things?). Roscoe’s work, on the other hand, apart from the free jazz ‘blowout’ that is the 18-minute ‘III’, tends to veer towards ENIAM. But then again, with artists of this calibre, the listener is often unable to distinguish between ‘Composition//Improvisation’. (Hence the slash?).

And so the age-old ‘false binaries’ debate continues…

Jazz is 104 Years Old!

Stated this starkly, this banner headline still seems shocking. The music that defined the ‘Roaring 20s’ is a centenarian, ffs.

I’m delving way back into the early days of the music, and I still find it strange that jazz’s generally accepted birthday, that of the initial recordings of the (white) Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB) in February 1917, was so little celebrated, at least as far as I can ascertain. The next significant recordings followed in August 1922, again by white pretenders, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. Of course, it is now accepted that the ‘original’ title is manifestly absurd, as daft as the notion that Paul Whiteman (oh the irony of his name!) was the ‘King of Jazz’. But still, the very idea of these recordings being 100+ years old!!

The prompt for this blog is actually my listening to the proper fountainhead of the music, Louis Armstrong’s tracks made with his Hot Five and Hot Seven, from 1925-1928. I was talking to a friend today about the classic anti-war film, All Quiet on the Western Front, made only twelve years after the end of the First World War, and still probably at the top, or at the least near it, of the list of the best war films ever made. Its sheer longevity is as impressive an achievement as Armstrong’s. Similarly, the late 20s recordings of the pre-Great Depression acoustic Delta Blues musicians, such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Willie Johnson, musicians is a equally miraculous archival triumph. (The recent film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom demonstrates the conditions that these sort of recordings were made under, only softened by the glow of celluloid retrospection.) The re-mastering work of John R. T. Davies for JSP Records, with Armstrong’s groups, to give just one example, is a genuine service to the world community. It is redundant to say so, but Armstrong’s (and Davies’s) genius, makes this music shine through after nearly a century. A cursory listen to much of Charley Patten’s scratched and decayed (and not in an ironic, hauntological way!) records demonstrated how lucky we are to have Satchmo’s music rendered up in such a pristine fashion.

I guess that this is a roundabout way of delineating my aspirations to preserve the work of the early UK free improvisers. (Their work being now a half-century old.) Some early New Orleans players were suspicious of the recording medium, fearing that it might lead to their styles being half-inched (as they surely were by white imitators/bowdlerisers), one result of this nay-saying being that the ODJB, somewhat absurdly, had the honour of making the very first recognised jazz recordings. For very different reasons, some early free improvisers were also suspicious of making permanent their transient interactions (for very different reasons, Eric Dolphy’s statement about music’s impermanence looming large), but the formation of Incus Records in 1970 offered an eventual refutation of this notion, by three of the music’s most rigorous thinkers, Derek Bailey, Evan Parker and Tony Oxley. So, the work of preservation continues, and I aspire to be a part of this ongoing process, however quixotic this might seem.

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The banner picture is by the late Mal Dean (1941-1974), which featured on the cover of the 1972 Incus Records vinyl release, Live Performances at Verity's Place, by two free improvisation pioneers, the English guitarist Derek Bailey and Dutch percussionist Han Bennink.