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At Last. The 1990s Show! Part One

Previously, analysis of rock and jazz has tended to be parsed by decades. The New Orleans and Chicago jazz of The Roaring Twenties; Swing orchestras of The Great Depression; Bebop in the sidewalk clubs of New York and Los Angeles in the Forties; Hard Bop on Blue Note in the Eisenhower Fifties (the imagined Eden of the MAGA ‘movement’?); Free Jazz in The Swinging Sixties; Jazz-Rock in the most ‘rockist’ of decades, the Seventies’ postmodern fracturing in the Thatcher/Reagan Eighties; the Ken Burns-isation of jazz and the emergence of Brit Pop in rock contributed to a backwards - looking (or, more fairly, a Janus-faced) culture from the Nineties onward, where ‘retromania’, or rather just plain good old-fashioned nostalgia, played an influence that shows no sign in lessening as yet. At present, however, music literature now appears to be favouring an approach based on specific years,rather than decades, a micro-approach which suits the avalanche of information that the internet encourages.

Some years have traditionally been valorised by critics of popular music - for example, the post-Elvis years with a suffix of 7 - 1967 (The Summer of Love), 1977 (The Summer of Hate), 1987 (The Second Summer of Love/Luv), Some writers have offered particular years as representing apogees of a genre- Garry Mulholland in his superior coffee-table encyclopaedia ‘’This is Uncool: the 500 Greatest Singles Since Punk and Disco’’ (2002) suggests 1979 as the annus mirabilis of these forms (a position that I agree with in many ways); YouTube has a video called ‘’1959: the Year That Changed Jazz’’, which pursues its argument through the study of’ Kind of Blue’, ‘Time Out’, ‘Mingus Oh Yeah’ and ‘Giant Steps’ (and is another proposition that I find compelling). 

A couple of venerable critics have produced books extolling the virtues of two years in particular from Rock’s ‘Golden Age’ (I would suggest that this period is book-ended by the years 1954 to 1980, or thereabouts) - Jon Savage put forward ‘’1966: The Year the Decade Exploded’’ in 2015 as his significant year, and former OGWT presenter and general ‘mouldy old rock fygge’ David Hepworth ( a co-founder of Mojo magazine, which says it all, really) bowled a googlie by suggesting, in 2016, that 1971 contained ‘’Never a Dull Moment’’. .As someone who was there at the time, I would respectfully but vehemently disagree with Hepworth’s sub-title (’’Many a Dull Moment’’ would be much more accurate), but would predict that his audacity may well motivate others to suggest unlikely dates as being ‘lost gems’  - there is a whole industry out there that promotes ‘undiscovered’ material, so why not extend this notion to undervalued years?

Second Part to follow

The Last Stand of the Compact Disc

I’ve very gradually begun to use the  technology of the internet to enhance my collection of musical recordings, so that I now have some of the latter on Cloud and on USB stix, as well as on the more traditional vinyl, compact disc and even my ancient pile of magnetic cassette tapes. However, my heart will probably always remain wed to the world of corporeal matter in the form of ‘things’ and objects - I’ve hung on to my old VHS and DVD films as well. It’s ironic that compact discs are now about as fashionable as 8-track tapes, as I’ve recently got hold of incredibly wonderful collections of classic jazz recordings in the CD format that would probably have cost an arm and a leg in the 1980s and 1990s (and would have been presented in lavish box-sets with accompanying erudite notes by venerable critics and varied scene-sters). As far as I’m concerned, CDs are now being sold at a price that they should have always been sold at, if it had not been for corporate greed.

Of course, this has a lot to do with the process of the historicisation of jazz recording, which celebrated its hundredth birthday last year. More of the music is now readily available than ever before. I would have killed for the chance to get hold of some of the sets that I’ve recently bought for a song when I was first becoming familiar with the music in the 1970s. At that time, many great historical recordings were either very expensive or very rare, or both of these limiting factors. Building up a collection was slow and laborious for most people. Now the complete works of most significant jazz musicians are available on line or through archival projects. The same process is happening in rock music - I have obtained the first five (and most important) records of Little Feat and Spirit, for example, housed in cheap and cheerful’ cardboard ‘ boxlets’ for a few quid each set. The packaging has absolutely no frills, merely consisting of the original album artwork in basic slipcases, with no extensive re-designs, extra tracks, remixes, alternative versions, ‘recently unearthed studio outakes’ or learned essays /retrospectives. All you get is the music with the original designs.

Many expensive and elaborate re-presentations of landmark recordings have opted to present the material purely chronologically, tracking the studio sessions by date and time - Ormette’s ‘Beauty Is A Rare Thing’, Coltrane’s ‘Heavyweight Champion’ (both box-sets feature the complete Atlantic Records sessionology of these two masters). Similarly, Monk’s ‘Complete Riverside Recordings’  Herbie Nichol’s ‘Complete Blue Note Recording’s and Miles’s ‘Complete Columbia 1965-68′ (i.e.the second great quartet) all lose the original album running orders, a major drawback for any listener who has grown up listening to the carefully thought-out track sequences of the original release. What one gets with the newer artist retrospectives that I recently purchased is the ur-album, with the tracks in their original chosen running order, with facsimiles of the first covers and, if you’re lucky, a few basic notes describing the musician. Thus, over the past year or so, I have picked up the ‘Complete Recordings of Paul Bley on Black Saint and Soul Note’ (these two labels have extensively re-released many of their artists back catalogues, including those of Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, Julius Hemphill and Richard Muhal Abrams), TEN albums in all; the first NINE albums of Cecil Taylor,from 1956-62, presented over five compact discs; TWELVE albums by Eric Dolphy, over 1959-62, over six compact discs (for some unaccountable reason, the album ‘Far Cry’ loses two tracks, including the magisterial solo feature ‘Tenderly’). These are incredible bargains, hours of music of immense historical heft and influence, but housed in a format that has become terminally unfashionable.

I know that we appear to have reached ‘peak stuff’, and that the younger generation is learning (apparently) to live with less of it, but I still like most of my stuff parsed and the various careers and genres therein given some kind of physical architectonics. I could have the entire work of Miles Davis put on to a stick for me, and can carry it with me at all times, but some corporeality will probably always be important for me.  I fully intend to take advantage of this current no-doubt- reluctantly-offered record company ‘largesse’ to continue the slow process of reifying my defiantly non-virtual music library.

Maximalism and its Opposite; Still in Full Effect in 2018

I’m keen to get back in the swing of blog things after a along hiatus, so this is the second missive of the evening. It will be a slightly disingenuous attempt to yoke together two recent themes in my listening, two very different audio experiences, but which both feature releases from this year.

As the attentive reader will have noticed, I have been working on a biography of Barry Guy over the past year, which has led to a cessation of blogs. The first draft of the biography is now complete, so this frees me up somewhat for a short time. Barry, and Maya Homburger, his wife and musical partner, recently sent me two new CD recordings on their Maya label. Their long-term relationship with Intakt Records seems to have ended, and so they have entered into a relationship with the on-line service Bandcamp, through which their recordings will now be available. Bandcamp apparently offer slightly more favourable terms for artists than more traditional earthbound labels. We shall see, I guess.

The recordings are two duos, hardly a new thing for Guy - one with increasingly-appreciated American trumpeter Peter Evans, and the other a bass/percussion duo with Ramon Lopez, who Guy has played with for many years in a trio with Catalan pianist Agusti Fernandez. These are very unusual combinations, even in free improv, which has historically favoured seemingly disjunctive combinations. I can’t think of another bass/drums combo in this genre, off the top of my head, to be frank (can anyone else?). Maybe some AACM project? Anything Guy participates in tends to be sprinkled with fairy dust, but I’m clearly biased here.- this is rather recondite listening in the final analysis, and just two more steps along the road of a remarkable career in music and sound.

Now, the ‘maximalism’ ( as opposed to Guy’s more ‘limited’ palette) of the title of this piece is provided by the laminar sounds of a trio recently recommended to me by my son, Sacramento’s Death Grips. This group will, I’m sure, be familiar to many (the Deep Cuts website has produced a rundown of all their recordings from 2011 onward), but they were new to me until a couple of months ago,  I was immediately reminded of Public Enemy and  Hank Shocklee’s multi-layered production methods - this is truly ‘laminar’ (Evan Parker’s term to describe AMM), a complex, multi-layered RACKET. Their just- released  ‘Year of the Snitch’ grows on me every time I listen to it, even though I find the hardcore-simian vocals a bit hard to take seriously. Listen to Oliver’s Deep Cuts review for a proper run-through of this band’s output. 

I’m still getting hold of more of their stuff, and I can’t help comparing it to Barry Guy’s austere, dedicated improv as both an opposite, but yet also a compliment, to the ugly roar of these American digital giants, who are seemingly  ‘Experimental Hip-Hop’ heroes. I’m very grateful that Nathan put them my way.

These recordings do give me such faith in the state of modern music. Both are such vital recordings, and as uneasy as f***, which perfectly accords with the national mood of both countries. Listening to some radio programmes (no name, no pack drill) makes me despair, in the face of their backward-looking attitude. A former member of The Fall (of all groups!!) especially comes to kind.

The New Rock Journalism

Being sixty three years old, I well remember the supposed ‘golden age’ of rock journalism in the 1970s, in the three main ‘inkies’ of that time - the New Musical Express (NME), Melody Maker and Sounds, all three of which havenow bitten the dust. The NME was the last left standing, but even that collapsed under the weight of its own irrelevance a couple of years back, having experienced the ignominy of becoming a free paper which you couldn’t even give away towards the end of its long life. A sad moment indeed for those of us who remember the excitement of waiting each Wednesday for the latest NME to appear, particularly in the post-punk period, when it was at its most intense and po-faced, both rather hectoring in tone much of the time, but also able to laugh at its own pretentiousness (Ray Lowry’s cartoons in particular being a model of acerbic commentary on the ‘rockism’ of the day).

The internet helped to make these magazines dinosaurs, and music journalism (and journalism in general) yet another endangered species of the digital age. It is hard to imagine being able to survive as a full-time music journalist in today’s climate, as newspapers in general appear to be diminishing in size, scope and influence - Donald Trump represents only the most obvious ugly face of ‘fake news’, both his own tremendous contribution to this phenomenon (he claims to have invented the term, which is fake news in itself) and that which he accuses entirely serious publications like the New York Times of promulgating. If one of my kids expressed an interest in journalism, I’d have the same reaction as I’d have to them suggesting a career in roof thatching. I still subscribe to The Wire, but have long given up on the ‘dad mags’ such as Mojo and other retromanic anachronisms (they do, however, at least offer work to ‘veteran’ journos from previous periods). So it appears that the new Nick Kent’s and Charles Shaar Murray’s are coming through on individual internet podcasts, and these are a mushrooming, if fiercely disparate, entity.

I can hardly claim to be an expert on this subject, but have been following two pods in particular over the past few years, and these appear to me to be well-informed, critically astute and as entertaining as a thing of this nature can aspire to be, given the presentational limitations involved, i.e. one talking head, no music samples, over a period from ten minutes to an hour (the Deep Cuts sixty-minute session on Brian Eno was far too much of a challenge to this viewer). Oliver’s (surname?) Deep Cuts is the first example, and American ‘internet nerd’ Anthony Fantano’s site, Needle Drop, is the other. Both podcasts are now several years old, their presenters are well-informed and obviously prodigious listeners, and both are opinionated in a good way. Other podcasts, who shall remain nameless (I’m not here to troll anyone, all efforts are worth our support and encouragement) can rapidly become tediously ‘wacky’- it takes a lot of talent and/or self-awareness to make oneself interesting and likeable over even just a few minutes of this type of intimate exposure to the camera, which seems to be something that we have all forgotten (if we ever knew) in this age of relentless self-exposure to the camera lens. Try videoing yourself a five minute selfie to see what I mean. Oliver and Anthony manage to be largely and mostly charming, but even they can pall over a long period - presumably there are issues around copyrights that prevent them being able to broadcast samples of the music that they discuss, in order to make it more interesting and less monolithic? But, good on you guys, you are providing a great service!!

The potential of podcasts is, of course, in its infancy. On another level to the enthusiasts, is the work of Captain Beefheart obsessive (and himself a composer) Samuel Andreyov, who has produced a symposia of pieces around Don Van Vliet and The Magic Band that sets new standards for musical ‘journalism/academia, for which writers like Simon Reynolds, David Toop and David Stubbs have already established a beachhead.. Andreyev has produced very lengthy interviews with Bill Harkleroad (Zoot Horn Rollo), Jeff Cotton (Antennae Jimmy Semens) and John French (Drumbo), basically the Trout Mask Replica Magic Band (minus Mark Boston, aka Rockette Morton, whose interview is apparently in the pipeline), and a superlative 30-minute break-down of ‘Frownland’, the first track on Trout Mask Replica, which had me shaking my head in admiration. He even makes the latter achievement not sound pompous or superior, as he has an engaging enthusiasm that is in no way patronising or affected. Fantastic stuff -this must be one way forward for the new internet ‘journalism’; a necessary corollary to the essential ‘fanzine/enthusiastic amateur’ approach of Deep Cuts and Fantano (which is also my own approach to writing about music, by the way) and a kind of ‘popular academics’ approach, perhaps comparable to that of historians Dominic Sandbrook and Simon Scharma in their erudition and ‘common touch’ around their subject.

We are in a different age now - it will be interesting to see how the younger commentators balance the rather oppressive weight of the music’s past to the undoubted vitality of the current scene(s). Deep Cuts and Needle Drop seem to have achieved a 50/50 balance from what I can see. They seem to have learned from the past, so do not seem doomed to promoting its perpetual repetition, as so many media outlets seem to be.

Iggy to the Rescue, Part 2

The ‘Legacy’ version of 1973′s  ‘Raw Power’, produced by the Ig himself, came out in 2010. I missed it, as I already had both the vinyl Bowie-produced disc from its year of release, and even the 1997 initial Iggy-produced re-release. Confused? I bet. That’s CBS for you. They know a cash cow when they see/hear one - Bob Dylan and Miles Davis being two particularly high-yielding ungulates, through this Legacy shtick. Sadly for CBS, The Stooges output was as minimal as their music (and as goddamn good!)

I’ve only got three other records in three or more ‘editions’, for various reasons, I think - ‘Unknown Pleasures’, ‘Forever Changes’ and ‘Highway 61 Revisited’. What a rip-off, of course, just as we suspected back in the day. This stuff should be given out for a few pence (in hard copy), not for several pounds, it’s all over, or nearly over, fifty years old, after all.  But I shelled out six pounds, utterly ‘out of time’ of course, for yet another copy of ‘Raw Power, but only because of the fact that the ‘additional material’ (for a change, as usually this stuff is utterly disposable), consisted of a ‘bootleg’ concert, recorded at a gig in Atlanta, Georgia on the 1973 tour.  The latter sounds like a genuine Theater of Cruelty event, as compared to the tame ‘Theater of Banality’ that Wolf Eyes presented last night at Cafe Oto, in the guise of ‘really weird stuff’. Oh Yeah, is that right, you guys?

This is not a record review, more of a rant, as you might have gathered. The Atlanta recording is poor, but its powerful quintessence is distilled through the alembic of The Stooge’s pulverising sound. This is Rock at its very best (The Rolling Stones deserve credit here, as if their own brand has been filtered through The Stooges metal grinder). The received wisdom is that the band birthed punk, but I’ve never heard a punk band come anywhere near this degree of intensity and genuine hostility. Maybe the Pistols on a bad night. ‘Open Up and Bleed’ and ‘Head On’ are equally belligerent in totally different ways and are worth the price of admission by themselves. I still play the latter at least three times a day - much more invigorating than coffee or cocaine, I’m sure. A masterpiece in tension and rock integrity (or ‘tensegrity’ as one of Barry Guy’s albums would have it).

Now then, now then - Wolf Eyes. I saw this lot at The Underworld in Camden in April 2007, and quite liked them, although I can’t take more than half an hour or so of their metier to be frank. Very much the law of diminishing returns. They were OK last night at Oto, but I regretfully passed on the last set which they assured us was going to be ‘really weird’, as a sort of “you don’t have to be wired to work here, but…” warning sign of rapidly approaching ennui. What interested me, in the absence of anything of such nature on the (non-existent) stage was some context - we were probably twice the age of anyone else there (yes, it shows, doesn’t it?); my increasing annoyance at the Oto ‘thing’, i.e. no stage, so that the three or four tallish head-nodding ‘freaks’ at front and close to the band completely obscured our view of them - even the singer commented on this ‘distressing’ factor. Get a stage, Hamish!  And some air conditioning while you’re at it. And some decent seating. Enough already. Oto is beginning to feel like any other ‘fuck the audience’ venue, coasting on its own smugness, and the fact that hipsters will put up with any old crap if they think its ‘authentic’.

There being minimal seating tonight (no-one gives up a seat for an old man, selfish hippie-sters!!), my increasingly-irritated attention was drawn to the audience, and it occurred to me how similar to ‘rock’ audiences this so-obviously-would-be-’edgy-experimental’ group’s fans appeared to be, and just how many rock gestures the band itself were essaying.. The singer was wearing wraparound shades and managed to look like John Cale on the Velvet’s first Verve album , combined with ‘Tilt’-era Scott Walker but shouting out some terrible sub-Beat lyrics, to somewhat harsh the vibe; the guitarist wearing his ‘axe’ like Peter Hook or Paul Simenon signifying louche ‘couldn’t-give-a ‘fuckness’. Oh. Plastic Inevitable, where art thou? Baseball caps have, at some point, have also appeared to have regained some sort of unpleasant purchase (I longed to don a MAGA cap as a protest), as well as some version of ‘free form head banging’. God, I feel old and yet not so old at the same time!! Is this some sort of meta-something? 

Everything comes back, if you give it time.  Like TB.

Some comparisons that occurred while Wolf Eyes were ‘freaking out weirdly’ - AMM in their contact-mike late sixties glory ( a bigger sound, but with one hundredth of the technology that the Eyes have at their disposal); pre-’Urban Gamelan’ 23 Skidoo, mid-eighties Swans, but minus Michael Gira’s genuinely disturbing control-psychosis. In trying to make sense of Wolf Eyes, the whole process irritated me so much, that I did compare them in my head to the 2007 version, which I recall (one of the most dangerous of cognitive activities) as being far less lazy and ‘look at me, I’m rilly, rilly dangerous’ yawnworthiness. 

As Jonathan Pie would say, after twiddling his earpiece for the final time, “the audience appeared to love it”. Oh when, oh when, will a genuinely new and exciting music emerge? Can it? This gig was all so much self-congratulation ( as I’ve increasingly observed in this so-called ‘experimental’ scene) and posturing. Saddo that I am, I’m finding refuge, after my bath in high art, in ‘Head on’, as at least it reminds me that I’m still alive, and that this sort of magnificent intensity might again be reached..

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