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Getting hold of a new release the hard way in 2019: ‘Topographie Parisienne’

I’ve been trying to get hold of a copy of the (relatively) new release of the Bailey/Parker/Bennink Topographie Pariesienne 4xCD release on Fou Records, but have encountered problems, which I think are indicative of how retail factors have changed so much over the past few years. This particular item is an exciting discovery, for those of us fascinated by early European free improv, offering the chance to experience the 1970 Topography of the Lungs line-up, in a later live situation, something which is hard to appreciate for the non-fan of this music. Think of a newly-discovered recording of Tony Williams’s original Lifetime trio from 1969, for example. Of course I want to hear it, and it’s only available in the compact disc format, which is currently about as available as a  VHS cassette, such are the dictates of fashion.

I tried to buy Topographie Parisienne from out current ‘record shops’, a thankless task (oh, for the days of Sound 323 on Archway Road, Mark Wastell’s all-too brief foray into the record retail business). I trekked to Cafe Oto’s small, rather up-itself , selection of arcane, yet improv-friendly stock (which inevitably promotes expensive vinyl re-releases), then moved ever eastwards towards Rough Trade East (a great shop). Nothing doing, however.

Now, I live in London, still  (maybe?) the head honcho of vibrant cities, so was surprised that it was so hard to get hold of this product, but there you go - where does you now go to get hold of a compact disc-only release nowadays, if you wishes to avoid using Discogs or Amazon? Here in self-consciously hip Crouch End, we have a record shop which heavily promotes vinyl records, both new and second-hand, and one is made to feel that compact discs are, essentially, the ghetto-side of the tracks, with regard to potential purchases. I’ve literally seen CDs become sidelined over the years in this particular shop, and shoved into a rather unloved side of the shop (the regular public still seems to like it, however). One gets the sense that asking to order a compact disc would be tantamount to asking for a Betamax tape (not that the young-ish staff would know what that was). Where, oh where, does one go to order a newly-released compact disc nowadays? Especially one that features ‘obscure’ music?

I‘ll tell you where. I ordered Topograhie Pariesinne from Discogs, whats more from a European retailer, thus incurring a £10 P + P surcharge. Poor me.

Moving on, it was interesting to see an article in Saturday’s Guardian about the supposed re-emergence of cassette culture. Where will the few remaining ‘record shops’ situate themselves with regards to this new ‘phenomenon’, I wonder? They won’t be able to flog ancient product for £20 or more, I’d predict.  Wire’s column, ‘Unofficial Channels’ has trumpeted cassette culture for many years, as have several other significant commentators and ‘scenes’, so it will be interesting to see how far this apparently retrogressive movement can progress in our current fixation with one particular old fashioned format (vinyl), in the face of some demand for the restitution of these others. There may well be more fans of compact discs than one might think.

However, I wish to state here my utter dislike of the completely flawed ‘jewel case’ - I’m utterly amazed that major record labels have failed to endorse an alternative to this utterly crap model, with it’s obvious design fault, the dual-hinged connectors that shatter once the product is dropped, or otherwise subjected to stress. I really cannot believe that this fault has not been supplanted, even after nearly 40 years of exposure to continuing consumer dissatisfaction. 

Or maybe I can, sadly.

Fifty Years and Counting...

Reading about the release of Topographie Parisienne, a 4 x CD recording of the Derek Bailey/Evan Parker/Han Bennink trio, live in Paris in 1981, made me think that their 1970 Incus Records (the very first that the label produced) landmark LP, Topography of the Lungs, is now nearly fifty years old. How did that happen?

There seems to be an increasing spate of 50th Anniversary events nowadays, an indication of how far we’ve all come in the world of experimental ‘popular’ music, and an indication of how many groups have persevered over time to continually produce exciting and innovative music.  The opposite to this longitudinal creativity is, of course, The  Rolling Stones, a configuration that has remained in vivo for over fifty years, mainly it seems, to make money and provide its members with something to do.

I’ve been thinking about three forthcoming gigs that I will be attending across November 2019, and the ages of their leaders - Barry Guy (born 1947), Evan Parker, (1944) and Joelle Leandre (1951). Two are in their seventies and one is soon to join them, but these are musicians who are still at the peak of their game, and are always still great to behold and to experience.

It’s interesting to compare them to the American presidential candidates in terms of seniority (Bernie Sanders is nearly eighty), and arguments that suggest that those over seventy years old (like Donald Trump, for example) are surely too old for such an august and challenging position. Probably this is an inappropriate comparison, “a false equivalence”, but it’s one that bears some thought, given the age of both rock music and free improvisation?

I’ve seen several concerts that celebrate the fiftieth (or ‘golden’) anniversaries of the following artists over the past few years: AMM and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and, this year, the London Jazz Composers Orchestra and Anthony Braxton (his first recordings). This currently short list will surely grow bigger and bigger as the sixties and early seventies begin to recede in memory, and we should give thanks that there are still so many of that generation who still produce vital and incisive playing for us all to enjoy (”Trevor Watts at 80″, for example). There are very few of the fifties modernists left (Sonny Rollins and Lee Konitz are the only ones that spring to mind), so it remains to us to continue to attend and support the occasions when these elders continue to grace us with their continually unfurling work. This is contrasted to putting up with yet one more rendition of ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ or ‘Satisfaction’, at a time in which both are surely rather creepy positions for any normal septuagenarian to adopt?

Compilations - A Dying Art?

This piece is occasioned by the appearance, in the latest (November 2019) edition of Wire, of the fifty first ‘Wire Tapper’, a compact disc given away on a regular basis with the magazine and which usually contains around twenty tracks by usually pretty obscure ‘experimental’ artists and bands. Out of this month’s twenty, for example, I’ve only heard of three, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Stephen Mallinder and Hieroglyphic Being (I consider myself fairly well informed about music, so it’s usually embarrassing to be proved to be so ignorant!) and often it is even less than this. Generally the Tappers are very much a curate’s egg, and often I just can’t be bothered to wade through eighty-odd minutes of ‘filler’ to sort the wheat from the chaff, but this month’s Tapper really is jolly good, exceptionally so, in fact, so it got me thinking about the history of compilations in rock music across the past five decades or so, and how the format is, arguably, virtually moribund in today’s digital world of ‘adventures in sound and music’.

In my history of such things, rock compilations really started in the late sixties, when record labels, both large and small, decided to take advantage of the burgeoning long player format, and of the ‘underground music scene’ in general, by putting out collections of single, representative tracks of their artists, usually at a cut price rate. For young listeners like myself, these cheap prices were very tempting indeed, and several near-classic products came out of this basic grab bag of the good, the bad and the plain indifferent (and there was a lot of the latter quality, I can assure you). Two examples that I availed myself of, and enjoyed for several months thereafter, were Island Records’ Bumpers, and CBS’s Fill Your Head With Rock, both double albums with striking covers and with generally a very high quality quotient. There were several others, that listeners of a certain vintage will be able to recall with affection, I’m sure. The Harvest Bag, You Can All Join In, The Vertigo Annual...This period ended when the counterculture went ‘overground’ with the likes of Bowie and Roxy Music, in and around 1972. The importance of record labels as a defining factor in a band’s presentation went dormant for a few years, until punk and Rough Trade bought it back with a vengeance.

The ‘Second Age’, as I will call it, is in many ways defined by the popular introduction of the cassette tape, from about 1975 onward (’your cassette pet’, as Malcolm McLaren would have it). This cheap and cheerful technology enabled the average fan to record 30/60/90/120 minutes of music on it’s two-sided format, and thus could potentiate a very handy, bespoke, gift for family, friends and, crucially, for people that you fancied. It provided ’the personal touch’, as it were, which had the added bonus of showing how ‘in touch’ you were (or at least aspired to be, in those days when music provided one of the biggest signifiers of personal style). You generally made the tapes up yourself, but the ‘independents caught up, at the cusp of the decade, the most famous of which was Rough Trade, whose C81 could be bought for a couple of quid through the New Musical Express, then perhaps at its most popular and influential. C81 was essentially a ‘post-punk’ compilation, and ‘every hip home had one’ in 1981. I’m listening to C81 as I write this, and am reminded as to how good most of the tracks still are. Cherry Red’s 1982 compilation Pillows and Prayers is another gem from that time. 

The early eighties also saw compilations that celebrated the previous generation’s mavericks - Julian Copes’ Scott Walker tribute Fire Escape in the Sky, and various records, by labels such Bam Caruso, celebrating sixties psychedelia, in the wake of Lenny Kaye’s epochal Nuggets. All these were as much organic collections as were the latest ‘waxing’ by the likes of U2 or ABC. I certainly listen to Chocolate Soup for Diabetics as much as I do to The Lexicon of Love (which, I know, says as much about me as about the discs concerned).


To be continued

Zonal: true ‘trip hop’?

Listening to the new disc by Zonal, the duo of Kevin Martin and Justin Broadrick, took me back to 1994/5, a period where these two were giving us some great records in the form of Martin’s Ice and Techno Animal and Broadrick’s Scorn incarnations. Martin was then also curating Virgin’s long-deleted ‘Ambient’ series, with such compilations as the influential Isolationism and Macro-Dub Infection Volume 1, both of which shared the same artwork as that which graced the projects mentioned earlier, thus giving this ‘scene’, such as it was and still is, a sense of commonality and shared vision. The music that these, and other bands, such as God, Godflesh and Main, produced was a mix of experimental dub, ambient drone, metal, rock and electronica, which some critics sought to collect under  the umbrella term of Simon Reynolds’s ‘post rock’, but I’ve always thought that these groups, with their distorto-dub, bass-heavy, oppressive and disorientating atmospheres, always sat better under the  ‘trip hop’ label, the then-contemporary sound of, most famously, Bristol’s Massive Attack/Tricky and Portishead. Whatever one calls it, it made a welcome change to all the Brit Pop hype of the time.  

The Macro-Dub notes quoted Ian Penman assertion that “People get warped by dub and reggae, and they never recover”. Certainly, John Lydon and Public Image Ltd. never did, and the influence of Metal Box still looms large over these recordings, and over Zonal’s Wrecked, whose title is somewhat of a spoiler, concerning its contents The first six tracks feature Philadelphia singer and poet, Moor Mother, and I love their sheer heaviosity, to put it crudely - those familiar with Martin’s recordings as Ice, God, Techno Animal, The Bug and King Midas Sound, and Broadrick’s with  Godflesh and Scorn will know exactly what to expect. It’s music for the solar plexus, and can leave you metaphorically winded. 

The one problem for me, however is in the lyrics, which mainly consist of paranoid drawls/rants about the military/industrial complex (as it used to be known), or, more simply, ‘The Man’. I am very much reminded of the late-nineties Primal Scream, whose Vanishing Point, Exterminator! and Evil Heat all displayed Bobby Gillespie’s inner world of sixties counter cultural conspiracy theories, with Burroughs-ian and Ballard-ian tropes in full effect. Now, I love these three records, with their input from such production wizards as Kevin Shields, but the adolescent words did drag the whole project down a notch for me. 

The lyrics to Wrecked’s ‘In A Cage’, ‘System Error’ and ‘Medulla’ (very telling titles!) are particularly asinine - “the system is rotten…we are forgotten” and “they want me dead, motherfuckers…like I got a bounty on my head”. These sound ridiculous coming from men in their fifties, to be frank, with their persecutory,‘outlaw’ fantasies and fixations (they even give mention  of‘Babylon’, ffs, rocketing me back to the days of The Clash, The Slits and The Pop Group, and not in a good way). The record drastically improves once they have got all this out of their systems, and the rest of the album is mostly instrumental, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, even hearing echoes of ‘electric Miles’, a sound which remains a touchstone for many of these experimental rock groups; “heavy, expressive and uncompromising” as November’s Wire would have it.

The Long Shadow of Punk -Spirit’s ‘Future Games’: Third Part of Three

And so, on to Spirit and Future Games: A Magical-’Kahauna Dream, it’s lysergic title being a bit of a spoiler as to the contents within this single disc. A few words on Spirit are probably relevant here, in terms of context - they were a West Coast group (from L.A.) who didn’t really fit in with their psychedelic contemporaries, being somewhat jazzy in their sound and without a particular ‘image’ or an ‘angle’ to sell themselves with (the closest they got to thistheir  was in the fact of having a bald, middle-aged drummer, Ed Cassidy, a jazz musician who was teenage guitarist Randy California’s stepfather). Their history is really divided into two very different configurations and periods: the 1967-1970 group was a democratic quintet, that of 1974-79 was basically a vehicle for California, still aided and abetted by Cassidy the former writing most of the songs and acting very much as the visual focus for the band. Spirit 1 produced a quartet of period classics, the last of which, Twelve Dreams of Doctor Sardonicus, is now acknowledged as one of the very best rock albums. It seems that California’s desire to be in charge (he still hadn’t yet even hit 20) led to the breakup of this incarnation of the band. A disasterous one-off reformation a few years later only reinforced their incompatability, and California’s control-freakery.

Spirit 2 also produced four albums of note, including the one under review, which was preceded by Spirit of ‘76, Son of Spirit and Further Along, all of which are mostly forgotten now. This is unfortunate, as they were all interesting, especially Spirit of ‘76, a double album which only reached No.147 in the American charts, despite receiving some FM radio airplay. It probably suffered from under-promotion, again perhaps related to problems with ‘image’ (or lack of), and to the fact that the second band bore very little relation to Spirit 1. In particular, Spirit 2 was clearly a psychedelic guitar band, with Califormia adapting a Hendrix ‘look’ and sound, at a time when this sort of music was becoming terminally unfashionable, before being put out of it’s misery for a couple of decades by punk attitudes and culture. Future Games was different, however, and reflected, probably unconsciously, a tighter, leaner approach to strong structure, while still keeping the hippie flag flying by it’s whacked-out conceptual adventurousness

For a start, the songs were very short and there were 22 of ‘em, eight more than there were on the first two Ramones albums! The longest is a version of Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower (famously covered, of course, ten years earlier, by Hendrix himself), which only clocks in a three minutes or so. This put them into the realm of later minimalist bands such as Guided By Voices and The Minutemen. What marked the album out at the time, however, was it’s arch conceptual nature, with it’s narrative being fractured and broken up by bursts of random noise, CB radio (anyone old enough to remember that?) and, in particular, fragments of the Star Trek TV (remember that 1977 was also the year that saw the release of the first, era-defining Star Wars movie). These segments tend to be eerie and surreal, with the voices of Kirk, Spock, Bones, etc, several featuring expressions of concern over Jim Kirk losing his mind after a visit to a dodgy planet. They are disorientating and somewhat disturbing (”your reality is slipping…as California sings on Buried in my Brain, and were very unusual production techniques for the time. Other inserts seem to be from selected from hammy old Hollywood horror movies from the 30s and 40s. It wouldn’t be too much to suggest that this album is an early example of ‘sampling’, using analogue technology of course. It certainly disconcerted the old hippies of my contemporary acquaintances

Paul Lester, in his Guardian re-review on 05/03/13 described Future Games as the “first collage pop album…released in early 1977, it was incredibly punk”. That’s certainly how it felt at the time - it was somewhat Janus-faced, looking forward to punk brevity and a fascination with popular cultural artefacts, and backwards to the glowing psychedelic haze of Hendix-influenced sci-fi lullabies (the Jimi of Bold As Love, 3rd, Stone From the Sun and 1983). It is one of my dearest musicological wishes to see both this and Good-Bye Pop receive their proper due, as “punk music by non-punks”.

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