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Oxymorons - what’s in a name?

A brief one this time.

I meant at append this to the piece on Eric Random, but ran out of time and space,

Whilst typing out the band name Manicured Noise, the notion of oxymoronic band names occurred to me. Full respect is in order for their New Wave-y single Faith b/w Freetime, their being a band that fitted well into the late-70s Manc scene of such contemporaries as The Passage, Spherical Objects and Steve Miro & the Eyes, associated with the Manchester Musicians Collective.

A few comparable antinomies might be the Noise’s contemporaries, Liverpudlian Jayne Casey’s Pink Military and then Pink Industry, Glasgow duo Strawberry Switchblade and, finally, Dublin’s My Bloody Valentine (is their track Strawberry Wine a backhanded tribute to SS?). It seemed that opposites did indeed attract in the 1980s, as, of course, did daft attention-seeking names of all kinds, The Cocteau Twins, anybody?

The Rebarbative Guitar of Eric Random - “That’s What I Like About Me”

A ‘package’ evening of several bands appeared at London’s Lyceum Theatre, on 23/03/80, somewhat reminiscent of those tours in the 1960s, which combined Top Of the Tops hit groups, all playing brief sets of around twenty minutes each. Famously, these smorgasbords of all the talents contained such unlikely mix and matches as Engelbert Humperdinck and Jimi Hendrix, each performing, in a bizarre cognitive dissonance for that time, a few minutes and a few feet apart. Back then, ‘the charts’ were ‘the charts’, and that’s all that counted for tour promoters. These sorts of programmes died out with the formation of rock music culture and of the new phenomena of festivals and the ‘rock concert’ itself, i.e. the main attraction, following on from one, or at the most, two ‘support acts’.

I was reminded of this multi-act post-punk gig (of which there were many in the 1979-80 period, at the height of post-punk) when recently playing Eric Random’s 12″ single That’s What I Like About Me, which features the lengthy guitar/FX piece Call Me, the solo guitar performance that started the whole Lyceum event of all those years ago. An interesting gig from an interesting guy at an interesting time. The Mancunian’s solo 12″ record was released on New Hormones, co-produced by Random and Stephen Mallinder from Cabaret Voltaire, mostly in the latter’s Sheffield Studio Western Work in April 1980. So it’s a fairly obscure example of the music that I’ve been trumpeting in these blogs recently. Call Me has a six-note over-driven guitar theme, backed by analogue, headache-inducing synth drums (forming a thumping, three-to-the-beat undertow throughout) and primitive keyboard electronic spirals and helixes. File next to Live at West Runton Pavilion The whole thing makes the first Stooges album sound like Kenny G, and the Cabs themselves must have looked on as proud parents. I’m put particularly in mind of Mallinder’s own solo 12″ of the time, Cool- Down/Temperature Drop, surely a nod to Fade-Out/ Fade-In on Random’s record?

Back to The Lyceum gig, which had representatives from Manchester: Random himself and Manicured Noise (a cut-price Talking Heads, who I really liked, and who had one mini-hit, Faith), A Certain Ratio (dour as f***, but enjoyable, with the great Donald Johnson on drums); Liverpool (The Teardrop Explodes, Echo & the Bunnymen, both well before releasing their first albums) and London (the Psychedelic Furs, somehow at the top of the bill, to add insult to tedium, but whose first album was due out that month so they were ahead of the rest of the bill in that respect). Both Zoo and Factory Records, the two hippest of the hip labels of 1980, were thus represented - however, The Birthday Party, Australia’s revenge-of-the-transported-convicts band, sneered, to any journalist who’d listen, that this gig was definitely not what they had come across half the world to experience. Apparently Cave & Co. expected London to be full of band like The Fall and The Pop Group, and when they found this to be far from the case, set about to invent their own version of Anglo-grot to oppose all these preening poms. I’d like to think that they may have made an exception with Eric Random’s set, which was definitely uneasy-listening, as opposed to the commercially-minded pop-punk of the rest of the ‘package’, bands who were, to use the currency of the time, ‘long macs’ to a man.

Tuxedomoon - Channelling the  DIY Electronic Ghosts

My last blog was about offloading vinyl, but there are some that I would never, ever, considering selling. These include the ‘canonical six’ as I have rather fancifully titled them recently, six classic DIY synth-punk singles from the late 70s, but I unforgivably and inadvertently omitted a seventh. Perhaps this was because they were American, whereas the others were very much typically British products? Whatever, the San Franciscan trio Tuxedomoon’s very first release occurred at the very same time as The Six produced theirs, and it spent as much time being played to death on my turntable, Joeboy…(Joeboy, the Electronic Ghost), fully deserves a place at the top table of this genre. I also reckon that the 45rpm format proved to be the band’s most suitable - just as it was, arguably, with The Human League, Cabaret Voltaire and Thomas Leer/Robert Rental. Like these other class of ‘78-sters, Tuxedomoon sounded better in short bursts of electro-cantatas, than in more long-form projects. The title track of their No Tears EP (1978), to take one example, is the equivalent of the Cabs’s Nag, Nag, Nag, with its brutally distorted vocals, organ and guitar - a Louie, Louie for the post-punk generation.

Tuxedomoon’s name implies a crepuscular cabaret of some sort, as does that of several of their Sheffield colleagues of the time (for which see Martin Lilleker’s Beats Working for a Living, a invaluable study of the steel city’s pre-punk, punk and post-punk music scene). Crash, the instrumental B-side of their second 45, Ralph Records What Use?, may be another early tribute to the J.G. Ballard book of the same name (1973), which had been also checked out in 1978, by Daniel Miller’s Normal, as the immortal Warm Leatherette. The links with their British contemporaries are there, but there seemed to be little awareness of these at the time - Tuxedomoon were from San Francisco, where the Sex Pistols had suffered their auto da fe at the end of the year, rather ironically as that city was the home of the hippie movement, punk’s so-called deadly enemy (a trope that was always, of course, consciously both misleading and cynically manufactured by punk’s managerial commodifiers). It was no surprise, really, when the band relocated to Europe in the early 1980s. Simon Reynolds’s description of their “aura of jaded elegance” would have suited the contemporary electro-pop ‘sensation’ Utravox, with their posturing pseudo- fin de siecle 1981 mega-hit Vienna. Rather satisfyingly, Vienna was kept off the Number One slot by the recently-departed John Lennon’s execrably cloying Woman, and then, for a further three weeks, by that immortal personification of absurdity, Joe Dolce’s Shaddup You Face. For those with a developed sense of the rightness-of-things. 1981 was surely the year when it all got so much worse? Like Punk Never Happened’ as the late Dave Rimmer’s book so accurately put it in his celebrated book (1985).

Cabaret No-Wave’ is another me memorable description of Tuxedomoon. ‘Cabaret’ was a trendy concept of the time, what with Soft Cell’s Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, former proto-punk Vic Godard and Joseph K’s Paul Haig rather doubtfully reinvention of themselves as ‘crooners’. Not to mention the rediscovery of the film of the same name

Joeboy…was released on the obscure Tidal Wave label, and isn’t mentioned on the Tuxedomoon Wiki entry.at all. It’s a true obscurity in this most obscure band’s discography. They do, however, fit in with the profile of so many of the contemporary synth-punk acts, in that they have always essentially been a duo, Steven Brown and Blaine Reininger (like that other great SF punk-electronica band, Chrome, they have added and lost fellow-members, but Tuxedomoon have always been, creatively-speaking, a duo). For me, the essential Tux recordings were their first mini-masterpieces, the two singles (Joeboy.. and What Use?) and the EP (No Tears) are the ones to track down. Their many albums, starting with 1980′s Half-Mute, increasingly rendered them rather generic, which is no crime, to be sure, but something vital had been lost in the process.

A Record Clearance

I’ve recently had a couple of significant vinyl clearances, having sold a few of my more valuable LPs to Alan’s Record Shop in East Finchley, Alan being a chap who I would wholeheartedly recommend for his straight-dealing and bullshit-free of doing business. These were occasioned by a combination of ‘spring-cleaning’  (in autumn) and the need for a bit of extra cash. I had a similar purge in the late seventies, in accord with the punk ‘philosophy’ of “I hate Pink Floyd”, and featuring the removal of all my Floyd/ Led Zep/Ten Years After/Black Sabbath/Deep Purple/King Crimson, etc, etc. vinyl. It’s all a bit ironic, given that original copies of, say, Black Sabbath and Paranoid, and In the Court of the Crimson King and In the Wake of Poseidon, can now fetch very healthy prices in the rather barmy vinyl market of the present time (I saw In the Court… going for over £200. in a local record shop not so long ago).  Oh well, I was young and acutely aware of the fashions of the day. I’m sure I’m not the only one, and hope that “I’m older than that now”.

However, there’s a big difference between selling your stock off in a dictates-of-fashion pique and as part of a late middle-aged ‘downsizing’, dictates-of-practicality exercise? They are two entirely different experiences.

I got around £800 quid for around fifty slices of vinyl and some tape material, so I came out happy, and without the feeling of having been ripped-off. But isn’t it a strange experience, trawling through your ‘library’, which, in my case is fifty years old ( I bought Abbey Road, Blood,Sweat and Tears and Led Zeppelin 2 in 1969, my first pocket-money purchases), and essaying which ones you can happily release into the world? There are: the records that you’ve had for 50 years, but haven’t seriously listened to for nearly as long; those that you never really listened to for any length of time, but bought in a fit of “keeping up with the Mick Jones’s”; those that you once loved, but now find inexplicably dull. There are many other categories, but, in the end, one has to be ruthless. And as we all know, ‘Ruth’ is stranger/stronger than even Richard, it being an ancient word for ‘pity’.

This all fits it rather neatly with contemporary concerns about ‘cleaning out one’s closet’. In today’s (9th. Sept. 2019) Guardian, there is a piece by a Saima Mir, called “I need clarity to function: ruthless (that word again!!) de-cluttering transformed my life “, heavily influenced by the clearance-’guru’, Marie Kondo, whose “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” has become, apparently, a must-buy. Kondo’s catchphrase is “does it spark joy?”, so I tried to apply this idea to my vinyl hoard. And it was pretty helpful, to be honest. I decided to sell such items as Return of the Durutti Column (obtained on it’s original day of release, in the sandpaper cover), Joy Division’s Closer and Still (ditto), A Factory Sampler (ditto), and an original Ardent copy of Big Star’s Radio City, with a few other Factory Records rarities, and was very happy with what I was offered by Alan.

On the other hand, some stuff that I had and loved, but also had in various digital formats, such as the lovely CBS box set called Billie Holiday: the Golden Years, proved essentially ‘worthless’ (Alan offered me a very few quid), as, apparently, do most box sets in general. As a proud ‘possessor’ (an important word in this context, given the opportunities of streaming technology?) of a few of those magnificent boxes on John Fahey’s Revenant label (the Charlie Patten, the Ayler, the Beefheart, the Harry Smith compilations in particular), I was rather deflated to hear this - it’s like the motor car business, in terms of depreciation. Even worse, as CDs now appear to be worth almost nothing (after retailing for as much as £15 a disc in the 80s and 90s). Now, all our CD collections seem destined for Oxfam.

Pete Townsend offered in 1971 the notion of: ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again”?, which  obviously proved to be a nonsense, as people seem happy to pay £20-30 for LPs that were released fifty years and over ago. Suits me though - vinyl was a great format, but I can do without the needle-dust, the scratches and the surface-noise that folks were complaining about even back then, as I can tell you as a former record shop manager. Nowadays, these very faults seem to have been fetishised - we saw the film Bait yesterday (highly recommended, btw), which seemed to be yet another example of a ‘glitch’ tribute to previous technology. I only hope that the vinyl that I sold to Alan eventually ‘sparks joy’ in it’s new owners.

Henry Cow - In Praise of (Written) Learning

As I said a few blogs back, I was intending to read the rest of Benjamin Piekut’s new book on Henry Cow, having been recently sent a copy of the book’s Introduction by the author himself. As I said in the blog, the chapter was mainly contextual, siting the Cow in their time and place, and stating their main influences: jazz, Frank Zappa and then-contemporary classical composers such as the Darmstadt lot and the serialists. I was never really a huge Cow fan - I loved Unrest, however, which has remained a personal favourite, being one of the three purchases that I made immediately before starting university (the others being Escalator Over the Hill and From the Mars Hotel, if you’re in any way interested).. I will always remain fond of these three albums as madeleine-like portals to the autumn of 1974.

I’m always up for a good read about music, and feel that the early 70s is a rather neglected period for leftfield recordings. There were a lot of these between, say, 1969 and 1974, but most critics seem to regard these years as a slough of prog rock and jazz-rock follies, so I’m always interested in books that explore this time in a more positive frame of mins. Piekut is an academic writer, and his books are published by university presses - his earlier - Experimentalism Otherwise: the New York Avant Garde and its Limits- appeared in  2011 in the University of California’s imprint; his HC book is from Duke University Press. I should have been forewarned and forearmed by the price of Bernard Gendron’s Chicago Uni Press publication Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club: Popular Music and the Avant Garde (another prolix title among many others in the academic field): a 222-word paperback costing £25 (weighty title, weighty cost?). Sure enough, when I enquired at our local Waterstone’s in Crouch End, Henry Cow: the World is  Problem also cost £25 in paperback and £120 in hardback. At this point, I backed out. I’m not that into early 70s leftfield music.

Now, I realise that academic books tend to cost more (look at the cost of art books), but this does seem rather excessive. The guy behind the counter thought that it might be a print-on-demand service, in the expectation that sales might be minimal. Academic books also tend to be of high design quality, and I know from experience that printing costs can be very high (my own books cost me around £8 each to print), but it does seem a shame that sales are liable to be even lower because of these sort of prices. On a more positive note, it does seem that the ‘Kindle Revolution’ has stalled, and people do seem to be reading hard copy still. On the tube, I do see many folk reading actual books (although far more are reading their electronic devices). Certainly, all three of my kids read hard copy books, and have bypassed Kindle entirely. 

So there is cause for optimism here, as regards the printed word, even though books, especially hardbacks) do seem prohibitively expensive for many potential readers.

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