Tags: chrissie caulfield, death is not the end, east of the valley blues, helicopter quartet, joe henderson, joe murray, julian bradley, kevin cahill, luke vollar, marlo de lara, miguel perez, neil campbell, patrick cahill, power moves label, power moves library, skull mask, sophie cooper, tusk festival, zellaby awards
Ugh, those canapés must be really stale by now…
…I murmur, lying spread-eagled on the floor of the ballroom in Midwich Mansions. I look up at the tragically withered balloons, still held by the net hung from the chandeliers. I idly pick at the broken glass within reach and wonder if dry-cleaning can remove blood stains. The banging and rattling of the locked double doors has stopped, mercifully, as the neglected guests have given up and gone home (although I suspect a few recorded the racket and I’ll be invited to download versions from Bandcamp soon enough). When my beautiful Turkish servant boy climbed in a window left ajar and tried to rouse me I ordered him to flog himself for his insolence – I was too full of ennui and despair to raise the rod myself. A wave of nausea washes over me again as I think back to the utterly foolish reason for this gathering:
Who on Earth would want to celebrate 2016?
Last year was a time when everything from the largest of world situations (American Election, Syria, Brexit, Climate Change) to the tiniest, most personal events (a red spot on the tip of my nose became a cancer scare) seemed unrelentingly hostile. People important to me died including my Nan, my last remaining grandparent, aged 94. People important to all of us died. An anonymous tweet drifted past:
We cry when famous people die not because we knew them but because they helped us know ourselves.
…which I dismissed as trite, then was forced to concede the truth of it when I found myself reduced to a heaving, tear-drenched wretch by a pop song on the radio. There is more, a lot more – life has been tiring and complicated – but it’s stuff that even a hopelessly indiscreet blabbermouth like me recognises would be unwise to talk about in public.
What about music and this blog? In many ways it was a gala, firecracking year for the ideas behind this endeavour. Some examples: the notion of the ‘no-audience underground’ was the subject of a paper by Susan Fitzpatrick and Stuart Arnot (cultural heavyweights best known round these parts as Acrid Lactations) at a conference at Goldsmiths and was mentioned by conference organiser Stephen Graham in his book about underground music, my writing provided some context and inspiration for the Extraction Music all-dayer in Cardiff, organised by Ian Watson, which raised a grand for refugee charities, I was name-checked in the TUSK festival programme (more on that later) and interviewed at that event by Paul Margree for his We Need No Swords podcast. I could go on. All very flattering and inspiring, but much of my own writing from 2016 begins with an apology or contains a paragraph admitting I’ve been having trouble keeping up, maintaining enthusiasm.
I’ve been in denial about how burnt out I’ve been feeling and unrealistic about how much time I could commit due to work and, more importantly, family having to come first. Things need to change, at least temporarily. I’ll come back to this at the end of the post…
…because now, my reverie has been interrupted by a rustling noise! I turn to see Joe ‘Posset’ Murray, chief staff writer here at RFM, crawling towards me. I’m amazed that he still looks so sharp in his borrowed tuxedo despite his injuries. He slumps nearby clutching a handful of papers.
End of year pieces from everyone, boss…
…he whispers and passes them over before collapsing. Ah, excellent, I think – just the tonic! Let’s see what my RFM comrades have to say about it.
[Editor’s note: due to the weirdness of 2016, and a desire to shake things up a bit, I’ve abandoned the usual categories of the Zellaby Awards and allowed my contributors free reign. I’ve also cut down the number of links, tags and illustrations included to streamline matters – just keep your preferred search engine open in a nearby window. There will still be an album of the year though, so don’t fret.]
Firstly, RFM’s new recruit Joe Henderson takes the opportunity to introduce herself:
Hi, I’m new here and quite discerning with music and also a bit stingy with writing about music. Nevertheless, I’m writing this sat next to a set of homing pigeons who have just given birth to a pair of tiny weirdo’s on New Year’s Eve. The father, Moriarty, has taken over parental duties now. This set of birds were ‘rescued’ from Birling Gap having failed their mission. Homing birds are supposed to fly somewhere. These birds ain’t going no-where and correct me if I’m wrong, but are we not also foreseeing the long-term preparations for the death of The Queen? It’s been a strange year…
In the blurred Hyperreality of 2017, where Halloween is celebrated three days before the fact – in this post-truth-information-environment, people have been watching David Attenborough’s final rainforest. Well, seems like here’s some of the creatures and microcosms that were found, discovered and captured…
The Balustrade Ensemble – Capsules (Ominous Recordings, 2007)
Jessy Lanza – Pull my hair back (Hyperdub, 2013)
Dangerous Visions radio series (BBC Radio4, 2016)
Blanck Mass – Dumb Flesh (Sacred Bones Records, 2015)
Pimsleur’s audio language lessons (German, Polish & Norwegian)
Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid (Rhymesayers Entertainment, 2016)
The Chris Morris Music Show (BBC Radio One, 1994)
6Music & Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service (NOW)
Time just doesn’t count anymore. It doesn’t. I doubt any of this could be pigeonholed as ‘no audience underground’. But none of this matters anymore, and you all know it. You see, it’s fallen, it’s all tilted. It’s 2017, and it doesn’t matter anymore. It’s gonna be a long come down, like George Michael’s ‘Faster Love’ playing whilst more than a hundred divers scour the sea. Crews of immunity-freaks lumbering thru the Waste-Waters of Brighton. Across the ocean an assassin throws down his hand of cards as the world is watching. That Christmas trucker sounds like sleigh-bells. Or an Air-raid siren. Pulsing. It’s missing airman hums ‘The Missing Persons Boogie’ in a cul-de-sac. In the Upside-Down land. Miles away from Brian Eno’s caste system, attached to the moon. With a Selfie-stick. Low down and shifty. Only those with energy begin to reclaim The Playground. And cordon it off. And pave over it. Eno still stumbling flamboyantly thru the withered fronds of his iEgo. Framed by the Sistine Chapel recreated in an Old Woman’s second bathroom.
“In this post-truth-information-environment” – do you know what we look like? From a distance, it looks like we have lost control, and are swaying almost like dancing to it all…
Blimey, eh? “You see, it’s fallen, it’s all tilted.” Brilliant. Quite some calling card. I shall look forward to her future contributions with great interest.
Next up, marlo de lara reminds us that the more personal it is, the more political it is:
as previously noted by my rfm family, 2016 was a doozy, a head spin, and a heartache. so without further ado, my 2016 moments of note:
1. death of heroes
there has already been a ton of writing about this and a lot of needless controversy over the mourning of musicians. to me, role models and inspiration are hard to come by and even harder to preserve as we watch these humans be human. prince and pauline olivieros were both highly influential in my life. prince’s ongoing, groundbreaking lived fusion of musical genres and his highly charged expression of androgyny and sexual desire was always intoxicating, all while self-identifying as a black musician. totally inspiring for me as a marginalized musician growing up in racialized america. pauline olivieros pushed me to reassess what I defined as sound, sound making, and intention. my spirituality and the ability to breathe through the making of music is completely attributed to this amazing woman. thank you for the inspiration.
2. ghost ship tragedy
despite living across an ocean from the noise family that helped me develop my sounds, i am constantly aware of the ongoing community struggles of those artists/musicians/promoters/supporters whose events and festivals create solidarity. on december 2nd, the oakland diy live/art space ghost ship went ablaze, killing 36 people. well-loved individuals who made, created, and supported the scene. as the noise community wept at the loss of our kin, america attacked warehouse/diy venues with a crackdown based on ‘safety’ whilst never addressing the underlying issue that those artists/musicians tolerate living spaces/venues like these because as a society we do not prioritize living wages and conditions for musicians to thrive. so we endure, infiltrate society and emotionally thrive despite the lack of funds.
on a personal note I want to mention joey casio and jsun adrian mccarty, both of whom were deeply loved in my community for their music and their spirit. joey casio was a mainstay of the pacific northwest electronic/weird music scene and i have always had a fondness for jsun’s art/music, particularly the live performance noise project styrofoam sanchez. i wish i had gotten to know joey since he was so well spoken of and jsun’s kind smile at noise festivals is deeply missed. love and respect always.
the absurdity of politics reached an all-time high with the nonsense my dear friend arrington de dionyso (of malaikat dan singa and old time relijun) had to endure due to a mural he painted in a dc pizza parlour. his aesthetic and artistic style were misconstrued while he and his family were targeted by clinton conspiracy theorists and trump supporting nobheads. arrington survived by painting and creating sounds. but let’s all have a think about the ramifications of art and the volatile, inflammatory, conservative hot mess that we could all be victim too. arrington, you are a champion for dealing with it and blessings to you always.
stay awake. stay aware. make noise. xo, marlo
Luke Vollar now joins us via the open window to bellow about the stuff he likes:
Here is my end of year list, sticking only to what was released this year – mostly ‘no audience’ with a couple of ‘some audience’ releases thrown in and in no particular order. The low lights of 2016 were fairly obvious: the rise of the idiots and global face palm moments reaching new levels of guuh?! On a personal note I’ve been through some ghastly work related gubbins so I’m hoping 2017 picks up considerably. Music, as always, has offered a soothing balm and kept me (nearly) sane so here we go peeps I’ve probably forgotten some glaringly obvious choices as I often do. Such is the life of the discaholik.
Wormrot – Voices
Dead In The Dirt – The Blind Hole
Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
Lovely Honkey – Completely Wastes Your Time
Dylan Nyoukis & Friends – Mind Yon Time?
Shurayuki-Hime – In the Beginning, Woman Was the Sun
Pudern & Vomir – Split
Error Massage – Rooby
Robert Ridley-Shackleton – Tupperwave
Moon – Diseasing Rock Who
F. Ampism – The Resolution Phase
Posset – Cooperation Makes Us Wise
Posset – The Gratitude Vest
Stuart Chalmers and yol – Junk Seance
Stuart Chalmers – Imaginary Musicks vol. 5
Stuart Chalmers – In the Heart of the Wilderness
Usurper – The Big Five
Culver / Fordell Research Unit – Culver: Prisoner of F.R.U.
Clive Henry – Hymns
The Skull Mask – Walls of Convenience
Triple Heater – Aurochs
The Custodians – Moribund Mules and Musket Fire
Yume Hayashi – What The Summer Rain Knows
My highlight of the year was watching Ashtray Navigations support Dinosaur Jr.
Next, Chrissie Caulfield with the trademark thoughtful enthusiasm that always has me clicking through:
I’m quite glad that Rob decided to let us do a general review of the year rather than try and nominate several releases for awards. Looking back, I seem to have reviewed only three albums this year which would have made it merely a rehash of what I have already done. Sorry Rob. In my defence, I’ve had a busy year with gigs and filmmaking and several other things. Some of the gigs even had audiences, though they were usually the ones organised by other people, naturally. More on that later.
Of the three albums I reviewed it’s hard to pick a favourite because they were all quite different, and excellent in their own ways. But if pushed (and I was pushed, if only by myself, just now) I’d have to nominate Furchick’s “Trouble With a Capital T”. Its sheer joy and inventiveness, and joy of inventiveness is infectious and inspiring. If ever anyone wanted a masterclass on making music with found and/or mutilated objects, this was it.
My most memorable event of this year was a gig I played at, though that part is incidental, in Oxford. It was one of those authentic ‘no-audience underground’ gigs where the artists and their entourage outnumbered the paying audience by quite a large ratio. In fact the only paying audience was a relative of one of the artists and someone who rolled in off the streets half way through (He probably didn’t literally ‘roll in’ you understand, the street was cobbled, so that would be very uncomfortable). This lack of attendance was a huge shame because the gig itself featured two awesome acts – as well as ourselves, obviously. The great Lawrence Casserley was always expected to put on a fabulous show (in this instance with Martin Hackett) and certainly did so, but the act I got via the female:pressure mailing list exceeded expectations in a big way and I felt awful for not having delivered them an audience. TEARS|OV, led by Lori.E. Allen put on a great show of samples, synths and live played and sampled instruments that was just glorious, and I’m happy that at least I got to film it, even though I only had one decent camera and zero decent tripods with me. As almost nobody got to that gig I feel almost duty-bound to try and get as many people as possible to watch the video. You won’t regret it, it’s here.
Another special gig for me was also one I played at – and the fact that I did so was crucial to my understanding of what happened. This was “A Working Day of Drone”, put on by Dave Procter, eight hours of overlapping drone performances. I’ve never regarded myself as much of a drone fan to be honest but this event was a real eye opener. I think a lot (though not all, of course) of the drone acts I had seen in the past were of the ‘I’ve got some gear and it makes some noise’ type which, as a musician with years of practice and training, I find uninspiring and lacking in effort. Put like that it was odd, I suppose, for me to accept an offer to play at a long drone gig … but I did because I like to try new things and to challenge my own preconceptions.
And those preconceptions were not just challenged. They had a calfskin leather glove slapped in their face and a large sword whisked terrifyingly close to their ear by Cyrano de Bergerac himself. Those preconceptions are now lying sliced, diced and blood-soaked over a, slightly grubby, drain in LS2, just down the road from Shawarma. What I experienced that day was, for the most part, a lot of very high quality artistry and discipline and, yes, musicianship. There were guitarists, multi-instrumentalists, vocalists and laptop players with expertise, patience and discipline. And discipline is the word I really took away from that gig which is why I have already used it three times in this paragraph and will say it again it now in an attempt to make sure that Rob doesn’t sub-edit it out [Editor’s note: Why would I? Couldn’t agree more!]. Discipline, discipline, discipline. Playing for a whole hour while keeping the sense of a ‘drone’ requires intense concentration and a lot of improvisational forward planning that, to be honest, I felt inadequately prepared for when playing my set. For drone music as good as I heard that day, I am a convert.
And finally, my favourite thing of the year – which is something I invented though I take no credit for it – is Feminatronic Friday. On a Friday afternoon when I’m winding down from a busy week at work and want some new music to surprise, tickle and sometimes assault my ears, I point my browser at the feminatronic Soundcloud feed and just listen. Of course, not everything is to my taste, but there is a lot of high quality work being produced by talented women around the world that seems to be ignored by the most of the outlets for even alternative music. It’s also an excellent source of material that I should be reviewing and, as it’s Friday as I write this, that’s where I’m going now. Happy New Year.
Joe Murray himself takes a bullet-pointed turn:
Politically, economically and culturally 2016 has been a year of shocks, knocks and sickening lows. It’s hard to look forward and see anything resembling a ray of hope. Greater minds than mine will neatly package all this misery up into a bitter pill but me… I’m warming some delicate seeds in my palm.
Records and tapes of the year
Hardworking Families – BA/LS/BN (Beartown Records) Like tin-cans learned to talk: a sharp knife splices individual ‘instants’ to wrap new listenings head-ward.
Acrid Lactations & Gwilly Edmondez – You Have Not Learned To Play & Mock In The Psychic System (Chocolate Monk) Complex patterns and shifting sonic-sands from stalwarts and greats – a brave and ambitious concoction of Dixieland and pure munged goof. Instant calmer!
Oliver Di Placido & Fritz Welch – Untitled (Human Sacrifice) The most crash-bang-whalloping record of the year by far. Knockout energy like TroubleFunk playing in a ruined skip.
Robert Ridley-Shackleton – Tupperwave (Chocolate Monk) Effortless creative juice drips all over these dirty, dirty ditties from the Cardboard Prince… his Black Album?
Lea Bertucci – Light Silence, Dark Speech (I Dischi Del Barone) Perfect like fresh frosty ferns, each sporangia a moment of potential beauty and enlightenment – one for all DJs.
Lieutenant Caramel – Uberschallknall (Spam) For me the Lieutenant was an unknown. Now? A well-thumbed friend. Euro-collage/concrete that’s super classy and head-strainingly intense.
Faniel Dord –Valentino (Cardboard Club) Another dirty boy with song-y songs played with hearty gusto and a wide-eyed innocence not seen since McCartney II.
East of the Valley Blues – eotvb (Power Moves/No Label) Sun-bright double finger-picking that warmed up my cockles and fed miso soup to my rotten soul. Life affirming, beautiful and generous. No wonder it’s got a vinyl re-release for tomorrows people.
Acrid Lactations & Jointhee – Chest (Tutore Burlato) You ask me about the future of ‘the song’ and I point you to this little tape of huge invention and heart. Not afraid to mix yuks with the high-brow, dream-logic and academic rigour. Never been so charmed ‘ave I?
Tear Fet – Blabber (Chocolate Monk) Every single vocal-mung technique picked up and shaken like a snow-globe. One for all serious students of throat-guff.
Yol – This Item Has Little Or No Scrap Value (Beartown Records) The mighty Yol’s most swingingest record of the year (and they have been legion and they have been good) that almost broke my rib with its accurately focused violence. A symphony of cuts and bruises.
Shareholder – Five Mile Throwdowns (Know This) One of the few bands I get excited about. Blending the listless and freezing loch with espresso intensity; a pond-skipper balanced on the tricky meniscus – he’s not waving!
Tom White – Automated Evangelism (Vitrine) and Commemoratives (Tutore Burlato) Double-entry for Tom White’s peerless technique and wonderfully intelligent ears. This very physical tape manipulation is strong enough to move giant boulders yet freaky enough to warp space. Without a doubt Tom wears the blue jersey in Star Trek.
Grey Guides – Beast Mask Supremacists (Crow Versus Crow Editions) Taking skuzzy guitar and skunk-potent tape to some place indistinct; this ghost-memory of a record made me dream of Wuthering Heights oddly. The AR Kane of the NAU?
…and penultimately Sophie Cooper. Sof resigned her post on the RFM staff this year [Editor gnaws fist to hold back hot tears] but gamely agreed to contribute to the end of year jamboree anyway. Much to my delight she has submitted a 14 minute video of her chatting over some gubbins she reckons is cool. Watch it here. I think it is well charming and, if you agree, please contact her to say so – I’d like to butter her up to the point where this kind of video piece becomes a semi-regular feature. Hah! There is no escaping RFM! Gabba, gabba, we accept you! ONE OF US!
Oh, did I just type my evil plan out loud?
So that just leaves me. I’m going to mention one prolificist, give a top three albums of the year, lay some news on you, then end on a high. How’s that for showbiz? I may even haul myself to my feet and brush off the marie rose sauce that seems to have dried on the side of my face.
In previous years one of the Zellaby Award categories has been the Stokoe Cup, given for maintaining quality control over a huge body of work making it impossible to pick individual releases in an end of year round up. I know I said I’d ditched these honours but this year there is such a clear winner that I cannot help but unlock the trophy cabinet.
The music of collagist, tape scaffolder and atmosphere technician Stuart Chalmers has been admired by everyone with a trustworthy opinion. His recent catalogue – solo or in collaboration – is an avalanche of stylistically divergent, technically perfect, emotionally resonant work. I highly recommend that you settle gently onto his Bandcamp site, like a probe landing on an exotic comet, and start drilling. The dude recently moved to Leeds too, how cool is that? He wins.
OK, now onto the main event: low numbers in reverse order. This year, in a classy piece of statesmanship, I’m leaving the listing to my colleagues above and am going to focus on just my top three.
[Editor’s note: If I’m honest I love these three more or less equally but, y’know, drama innit?]
Flat out glorious from beginning to end. This album has the texture of pistachio flavoured Turkish delight. It is sweet, gelatinous, opaque, yielding to the bite but containing a satisfying savoury grit. If I were a betting man I’d wager Neil provided the caffeinated hyper-psych which was then slowed, burnished and blurred by Julian’s patented murkatronik obfuscator. Best to keep it mysterious though, eh? I’ve listened to this so frequently that I think now I’d have trouble remaining friends with anyone who didn’t groove on, say, the disco-for-writhing-foot-long-woodlice vibe of ‘giants in the electric nativity’.
Two non-musical reasons to be entertained too. Firstly, the Bandcamp photo is a nod to the cover illustration for an LP they recorded for American Tapes exactly one million years ago. The no-audience underground remembers. Secondly, it was released on 20th December, thus too late to be included on any of the ‘best of year’ lists published before the end of the year. Seeing as the premature way these lists are ejaculated has long annoyed me I was delighted to see JB & NC stitching ’em right up.
Yeah, yeah, one half of Helicopter Quartet is RFM staffer Chrissie Caulfield but, as I’ve said many times, there is no such thing as conflict of interest down here. If we didn’t blow our own trumpets sometimes there would be no fanfare at all and, whoo boy, Mike and Chrissie deserve it.
Continuing a seemingly impossible run of each release topping the last, this album takes their austere, mournful aesthetic in an explicitly dystopian direction. The bleakness described by previous releases has called to mind slate grey stone walls on ageless moor land but Electric Fence has a more Ballardian edge.
I listen to the thrilling, Tubeway Army-ish title track and imagine the strings of Chrissie’s violin animated by Ralph Steadman – whipping away from us to form the boundary fence of a desert Army base, or a mud-choked refugee camp, realities that we’d rather not contemplate. Or maybe the fence is personal, invisible, internalised – a tragic defence mechanism that provides the illusion of safety at the cost of constant loneliness?
Powerful and important music, as ever. That work of this quality is freely downloadable remains remarkable.
The Zellaby Award for best album of 2016, presented in conjunction with radiofreemidwich, goes to East of the Valley Blues for EOVTB. Joe Murray wrote about this one back in April:
Wonderful! Wonderful, wonderful!
This tape was playing when the first rays of Spring sunshine shot like misty timbers through my window and the jazzy daffodils belched out warm yellow hugs. And no, I don’t think that’s any coincidence brothers & sisters.
This tape is a truly innocent joy. Why? Firstly, it’s the simplicity. We’ve got two guys, two Power Moves brothers, sitting on that metaphorical back porch finger-picking like the late great Jack Rose, improvising with a sibling’s sensibility at that slightly ragged speed we all associate with the beating heart in love.
Secondly, we’ve got notes that shimmer in a cascade; I’m getting nylon waterfalls as things tumble and tremble, roil and buckle as ten calloused fingertips gentle rustle the strings. This is all about the movement, the restlessness of a leaf caught in an eddy, the churn of water spilling from a red hand pump.
Finally there’s that slight sense of anticipation, a yearning that’s probably something technical to do with the key it’s all played in. But for a goof like me it just tweaks my memory zone; this music looks backwards at endless summers and looks towards bouncing grandchildren on the knee. This is music of time, its passage and its baggage; the highs and lows, the dusty wrinkles and the fumble in the sheets.
And am I noticing a slight change in the way time is behaving around me? Not so much time stopping but stretching, those strict minutes becoming supple like a cat’s arching back. Maybe reader maybe.
Lovers of this plaintive guitar-pick often yell out a challenge:
Me? I’m lost in the buttery light right now, light-headed with Beat road dreams,
If you heard it you wouldn’t have to ask… click the god-damn link and get heavy in the valley.
…and he is right, of course.
The brothers Joe refers to are twins Kevin and Patrick Cahill (the former best known ’round here for running Power Moves Label/Library) and the album’s genesis is covered in an excellent interview with Tristan Bath for Bandcamp Daily which can be read here.
All I need to add is that given the divisive and miserable nature of the year just gone, an album so beautiful, so spacious, so forgiving, so grounded in love and family could not be less ‘2016’ and thus could not be a more worthy winner. Congratulations, fellas.
A discographical note: this album has now been reissued by the excellent UK label Death Is Not The End and can be had as a download, tape or – get this – vinyl album via their Bandcamp site. For those wanting to take a punt without risking any dough, free downloads of some live shows can also be had here.
The prize for winning remains the, *ahem*, ‘great honour’ of being the only release on the otherwise dormant fencing flatworm recordings in 2017, should the brothers be interested in taking me up on it. Nowt fancy – CD-r plus download would usually suffice given the absence of any budget. Negotiations can commence anytime.
Right, let me just drag Joe Murray up into a chair as he needs to wave and smile during this bit. OK: some news. As of whenever we can sort out the logistics, Joe is going to take over from me as editor/publisher of RFM whilst I take an indefinite sabbatical. No need to worry – I am not ill again – I just need a break to attend to the real life stuff away from music I’ve been alluding to throughout the year. I have to apologise to those people who have sent emails, invitations to download, physical objects and whatnot and are still waiting for substantial responses. I’ll slowly catch up with personal stuff, forward all the blog stuff and my colleagues will soldier on in my absence. I’ll still be wandering around twitter and attending shows (Leeds people – see you at the Fractal Meat showcase on Feb 3rd, eh?) just won’t be at the helm here. Feels weird to be saying this after seven years but I’m sure this will prove a healthy decision and I’ll be back before ya know it.
Finally then, my musical highlight of the year: Miguel Perez playing as Skull Mask at the TUSK festival. Here’s an extract from my account of the weekend. In particular, I want to finish with the word ‘fuck’ so I’ll say goodbye now – those who know me won’t be surprised to see me slope off before the end of the last set.
Best wishes for 2017, folks, keep yourselves and each other safe.
All is love, Rob H x
Next up it was Miguel Perez, playing as Skull Mask … This was what I was here to see and his set – just man and guitar – was astounding. Flamenco flourishes, desert folk, improv spikiness and metal hammering flowed, pressed and burst like a time-lapse film of jungle flowers opening, like lava flow, like clouds of starlings at dusk, like liquid mercury. Miguel is one of the most technically adept guitarists I have ever seen but all that virtuosity is in service of one thing: the truth. To say the music of Skull Mask is heartfelt or sincere is to understate the raw beauty of what it reveals: a soul. Miguel’s soul.
Stood at the front I found myself having an out of body experience. Part of me was enjoying it on an absolutely visceral level, unwaveringly engaged, but another part of me was floating above thinking about what the experience meant.
Watching the performance unfold, I started thinking about how beautiful life can be despite, sometimes because of, how hard it can be. I thought about the miraculous combination of factors – hard work, friendship, sheer bloody luck – that led to us all being in this room at this time. A strange, accepting calm enveloped me whilst at the same time the more present, grounded part of me was yelling (internally – I do have some control):
HOLY FUCKING CHRIST!! MIGUEL IS SAT RIGHT IN FUCKING FRONT OF ME PLAYING THE LIVING SHIT OUT OF THAT FUCKING GUITAR!! FUCK!!!
Tags: situations vacant
It causes me great sadness to announce that Sof Cooper is no longer on the ‘staff’ here at RFM. Alas, she has decided to turn her awesomeness in other directions. We wish her well and her contribution has been celebrated here with a gigantic bonfire of sweet incense and unheard tapes. RFM insiders know that her letter of resignation has been on my exquisitely carved marble desk for some time but I had been IN DENIAL about its contents. However, once I came to terms with the news (by throwing a Kylo-Ren-style office-trashing fit) the thought occurred to me: Ah, could this tragedy prove an opportunity?
The fact is I cannot keep up. Nowhere near. As I type, the review pile contains scores of items, some received as far back as last Spring, and much as I’d like to do nothing but lounge about on a fluffy cloud of downloads I’m afraid ‘real life’ has had other ideas. I admit it is an enviable problem to have – damn all this amazing free stuff, the clamour for our opinion! – and running RFM is largely a joyous experience, but I am left glum by the thought that WE COULD DO MORE.
This is not to cast aspersions on the efforts of the remaining RFM squad, of course. Without them I suspect the whole enterprise would have folded in on itself, like the haunted house at the end of Poltergeist, sometime in the Summer. Joe continues to produce the best writing on music to be found anywhere – the gonzo rapidity of his prose slyly hiding a wit as sharp as shards of broken mirror and a breakdancing phenomenologist’s understanding of what music feels like. Chrissie hand-carves her occasional posts, carefully detailing her appreciation with an even-handed patience, a refreshing openness and an infectious enthusiasm. Luke and marlo have recently been standing by their beds forlornly waiting on orders from their editor whilst I just grin sheepishly and mutter.
You can see where this is going can’t you? Anyone fancy stepping up to help? Here’s the job spec, number of positions available still to be decided:
Firstly only those identifying as women are invited to apply. Odd music, and reporting on odd music, remains male-dominated and I want to do a little to redress that balance. Secondly, and the only other essential qualification, is I’d like you to be able to convey your enthusiasm for this music with an entertaining writing style.
Regarding that writing, the ideal candidate would be able to commit to, say, at least half a dozen articles a year (hopefully more) with at least half of those taking stuff from the review pile as subject matter (the rest can be at your discretion). Posts generally run 750-1500 words for reviews or 2000-4000 words for ‘think pieces’ or festival write-ups. Whilst RFM’s main concern is recorded music I’d be open to suggestions – anyone up for conducting and transcribing interviews, for example? I’m not interested in bad reviews – this blog is almost entirely positive as a matter of editorial policy – nor does a dry or academic approach much appeal. We ain’t big on footnotes.
I guess being part of the ‘no-audience underground’ scene (see link below) – punter, participant, whatever – and/or D.I.Y. culture would be handy but isn’t strictly necessary (at least to begin with – gabba, gabba, we accept you!). Anyone who could help with proofreading and/or formatting submissions for WordPress would likely have their hand bitten off.
Unfortunately, there is no payment available. RFM attracts about 30,000 visits a year so your writing will be read by an appreciative and knowledgeable crowd but the budget is less-than-zero. I offer no subscriptions, invite no donations and actually pay WordPress a premium so as to not carry adverts (punk as fuck, me). There may be the odd freebie review copy posted your way (or download codes emailed if you are outside the UK) but that is it. We’re all for love.
So, if this appeals and you aren’t already a reader please acquaint yourself with the blog’s style and content – as well as dipping into a handful of reviews I’d advise getting some biscuits and settling down with my last big piece on the ‘no-audience underground’ as that really explains what we are all about. If you are still interested after that then feel free to contact me via email or Twitter and we’ll talk turkey.
A reshuffle of the ‘about us’ page, a (painfully polite) cull of the review pile and a tightening of the review submission guidelines will follow in due course but I wanted to get this, most exciting, aspect of the coming changes up and running first…
Tags: ceramic hobs, pete coward
(Mountford Hall, Liverpool, 28th October 2016, photo courtesy of @salfordelectron)
[Editor’s note: Inspired by the announcement of their final tour, Pete Coward asked if I’d be interested in publishing a guest post by him about Ceramic Hobs. I bit his hand off.
Pete has long been a presence in underground music as a bootlegger, scene historian and writer for indispensable zines such as Turbulent Times. He is one of four ‘superfans’ called on by Phil Todd to help compile the forthcoming best of Ashtray Navigations set (the others being me, Neil Campbell and, would you believe, Henry Rollins) and his selections are, as expected, as superb as they are obscure. Recently he has been producing booklets of his own poetry which is poignant, darkly humorous and depicts a park-bench view of the world a lot of us Ceramic Hobs fans will recognise. If I were you I’d email him at email@example.com and get yourself on his list.
Oh, and he also wanted me to mention that he dreamed about Borbetomagus the other night but the band were reduced to a duo, which made him quite sad.]
Writing about Ceramic Hobs is a tricky exercise. The band has just called time on their thirty years of music making so it seemed timely, if foolish, to pose the question to myself,
so what was all that about?
After a few weeks of considering that question and of re-listening I have no clearer answers than before and my thoughts seem scattered ever further. I can only offer attempts to rein in some of those thoughts, to see if tracing my confusion results in any kind of useable map to the terrain explored by Ceramic Hobs.
To start on what solid ground there is, Ceramic Hobs formed in Blackpool in the mid-80s. Their line-up has constantly shifted since, with founder Simon Morris being the one constant. The sound coalesced at a fairly early stage, into a distinctive mix of heavy lo-fi psychedelia and prankster musique concrète, driven by a truculent punk core. In high concept terms, they sound like a band that never really came down from that lysergic rush received on first listen to Locust Abortion Technician in the late ‘80s. They share Butthole Surfers’ love of excess. Their records are a potlatch of cultural and musical detritus. If there is a discernible linear progression in their sound, it is a thickening of that excess, a process of musical and thematic accretion. Tracks get longer over time (up to 35 minutes in the case of the title track to Oz Oz Alice, 2010), the sound becomes more layered and densely compacted, the sprawl of the music more suffocating.
Later albums like Oz Oz Alice and Spirit World Circle Jerk (2013) represent an apex of this Tetsuo-like approach, one that threatens to collapse under its own mass. This development was possibly unsustainable in other respects; Simon said in an interview shortly after Oz Oz Alice,
I can’t do anything as dangerous as that again if I am to physically survive.
This sense of genuine danger and personal threat (to band and listener) comes in large part from the topics explored by Ceramic Hobs. These themes have been part of their music and lyrics from the beginning and could be outlined as a fascination with, a dwelling upon, the marginal, the abject and objectified, and particularly those areas of it shadowed by mental illness.
The foregrounding of the latter subject has been such that Ceramic Hobs have been frequently cast as a Psychiatric Survivor band, or as a Mad Pride band, referring to the international radical mental health campaigning movement (for which Ceramic Hobs have played a number of benefit gigs). The band has described themselves as functioning like a therapeutic community. They have spoken with pride of the numbers of members, current and past, who have been psychiatric in-patients. Those statistics have more recently been superseded by numbers of ex-members who have died; I’m unsure of the correlation, if any, between those two sets of figures.
I am wary of focussing too narrowly on this undeniably significant aspect of the work. To do so runs the risk of reductionism and ghettoization. Ceramic Hobs are about mental illness in the same way Grateful Dead are about acid or drum ‘n bass about E. It’s an influence, part of the culture and politics of the music (and a big part of what makes it political music), but just as one factor among many. Also that influence has been creatively assimilated and refracted in ways that we call art (which is why I’d also counter that talk of the band as a therapeutic community is an unhelpful misrepresentation). You do not have to be tripping to recognise the greatness of Europe ‘72, neither does the listener require a mental health diagnosis to appreciate the music of Ceramic Hobs. Their lyrics may reference terms such as largactyl and dual diagnosis but if you are fortunate enough not to have learned the meaning of those, the context still leaves you in no doubt about the unpleasantness of both. You could make a perfectly good case for Ceramic Hobs being a great band without any reference to mental illness, and you certainly don’t need to “have” mental illness to “get them.”
That clearly said, it is not closing down any possibilities to also state that listening to Europe ‘72 while blasted may be a particularly rewarding experience, just as Ceramic Hobs’ personal experience of mental illness channelled into their music may be hugely empowering for someone who is a psychiatric survivor and listens to them as such. Ceramic Hobs embody both, and other, dialectical positions and it’s this ability to do so and to reflect all of those in the music that I find particularly admirable. The music of Ceramic Hobs provides a rarely heard perspective on experiences and thoughts shared by many, a perspective that is uniquely positive and celebratory. They have earned their place in narratives of mental health resistance and activism. They have also earned their reputation as a shit-kickin’ band from Blackpool, and I think it is useful to see their personal and political fearlessness, the use of illness as a weapon, as a means to carve out the zone of free self-expression which enabled that to develop.
This multiplicity of meanings and possibilities is expressed synecdochally in the title to their 1998 debut album Psychiatric Underground. It could be seen as a statement of marginal reclamation and militancy, after Mad Pride and The Weather Underground; or as a social/political/cultural/economic designation for Ceramic Hobs as musicians and mental health service users. It could equally be seen as an existential stance akin to Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, existing at the edges so as to pass judgement on the centre; Simon in the self-appointed role of “Last Of The Great Blasphemers.” The psychological effort that must be needed for Ceramic Hobs as artists to inhabit each and all of these positions must be significant. That casts light for me on Simon’s words quoted earlier about the danger of creating this music. He went on to say in that interview,
I do think that artists should be ready to put their work above all else in life and risk health and sanity for it, otherwise it is a fucking half-arsed hobby.
That intense level of commitment also raises thoughts about the role of authenticity in art and music, and how far Ceramic Hobs embody that.
This is not authenticity as lazy sincerity, as in “Ceramic Hobs mean it, man,” as Richey Edwards did. It is authenticity as expression of genuine truth within power structures that deny and invalidate that truth and in a society so culturally oversaturated that any expression appears within quotation marks. Sontag wrote in ‘Notes On Camp’ of a time and culture when
…sincerity is not enough. Sincerity can be simple philistinism, intellectual narrowness.
Sincerity is an infertile harmony of intention and effect, life and art. An alternate praxis she posits is
…overstraining the medium and introducing more and more violent, and unresolvable, subject-matter.
Ceramic Hobs create with the knowledge that irony, satire, transgression, vulgarity, the carnivalesque are the few modes of expression left with genuine potential to turn the world upside down.
This is also the only authenticity that can be possible on the internet. Ceramic Hobs seamlessly entered into a fecund feedback loop with online culture, indeed seemed to have been anticipating it. The female-voiced narratives of despair on tracks such as ‘Remembrance for Nicole Simpson’, ‘My Judas Lover’, and ‘Crash And Burn’ disturbingly capture the tropes of countless ‘My struggle with …’ videos uploaded to YouTube by teenage girls. The vocals to those tracks are credited either to Jane or Kate Fear but the voices seem indistinguishable to me in their numbed, affectless and weightless monotony. Lyrics like
I just want to find some kind of peace / You just want me in pieces
wouldn’t be out of place as the tag-lines to further countless tumblrs. Simon’s most prolific project these days seems to be his blog, a diarrhetic overflow of contextless found images and words, possibly some kind of apophenia bait.
(Wharf Chambers, Leeds, 20th October 2016, photo courtesy of @zanntone)
The underside to online hyperreality in the world of Ceramic Hobs is the very tangible reality of Blackpool, Lancashire, the city that they call home and which features regularly in their lyrics, both as backdrop and central character. It’s a place that can be equally deadening in its excess, as wearying in its touting of ephemeral pleasures. “Socially engineered by Blackpool” reads the credits to Psychiatric Underground. There does seem to be a local civic pride in reckless alcohol-fuelled hedonism, hell-for-leather escapism and constructed unreality which is reflected in the music of Ceramic Hobs. The band’s own local pride seems as ambivalent as that of the eponymous ‘Glasgow Housewife’ from Spirit World Circle Jerk who belts out drunkenly
I belong to Glasgow, dear old Glasgow town, but there’s something the matter with Glasgow…
There is palpable resentment and frustration, such as the self-explanatory ‘This Sore And Broken Blackpool Legacy’, but that must be seen alongside more affectionate tributes such as ‘Blackpool Transport,’ which namechecks and samples a sizeable list of local bands, framed bathetically by a story of pursuing teenage kicks through cheap booze and solvent abuse while sheltering from the rain in a car park. The love/hate relationship with Blackpool is one of Ceramic Hobs’ least surprising and most reconcilable contrary positions.
Those others I’ve reflected on above go some way to explaining the fascination this band holds for me. These contradictions and obfuscations thread through their music as inexhaustibly as words through a stick of rock. Their retirement depletes even further those few bands prepared to challenge listeners and make that challenge worthwhile. An epitaph that they may appreciate, Ceramic Hobs left us more bewildered, paranoid and despairing for their presence these past few decades.
Y’know those rare days when it is so hot that the only possible topic of conversation is ‘how hot it is’? Well like that but replace ‘hot’ with ‘tired’.
So tired that I mix up different presenters on the CBeebies channel and alarm my three year old son by exclaiming:
Blimey! That lass has grown a new arm!
So tired that I can only marvel, a hapless spectator, as a single flight of stairs proves a challenge to my trembling knees.
So tired that I put the grapes in the freezer and am bewildered to find them, rock-fucking-solid, the following morning.
So tired that all music becomes a grey and undifferentiated mass, the prospect of which just makes me want to… sleep.
Readers may have noticed a slow down in posts of late. This is due to your humble editor enduring a bad attack of the one-damn-thing-after-anothers. Long term followers may worry that my depression is returning but, mentally at least, I seem as impervious as a concrete rhinoceros. It’s ‘just’ ‘real’ ‘life’, the demands of which have brought on a mild, music-related existential crisis and have, until now, not afforded the time to think about it.
On the face of it, all is barrelling along very nicely indeed. I’ve been massively impressed with Clan RFM this year and the terrific projects my comrades have been involved with: Chrissie’s album with Helicopter Quartet, Joe’s unhygienic but effective finger-in-every-pie creative strategy, marlo’s participation in and championing of the Extraction Music event/comp, Luke’s mad tape on ultimate outsider-art label Cardboard Club, the awe-inspiring line-up gathering for Sof’s Tor Fest (alas, I won’t be there – I’m cashing in all the husband-points I’ve collected to go to TUSK and hang with Miguel later in October) – to name but a FEW. That any of them has managed to write anything for l’il ol’ RFM boggles the mind.
And me? Yeah, my dinky CD-r on Bells Hill has been well received, my ideas have been discussed in the ivory towers of academia and I am now the owner of two T-shirts commemorating events at least partly inspired by my writing. No biggee.
The only problem is that I can’t seem to listen to music.
It’s odd – throughout my life as a serial obsessive I’ve spent three or four years each on various nerdish pursuits (go on, ask me about textual variations in the numerous editions of Philip K. Dick’s The Unteleported Man a.k.a. Lies Inc. Err, no, on second thoughts, don’t) before losing interest and moving on, but music has always been exempt from this pattern before.
What’s happening? Despite the ridiculous tiredness, my concentration span hasn’t entirely left me – for example, I got through over twenty hours of podcasts about the horrors of the World War I recently (yes, that was what I was doing instead of listening to your tape). My sense of humour may have darkened but I’m maintaining a jaunty-ish Twitter presence (even if the rest of my correspondence is for shit). I’ve even tried dropping the noise and looking elsewhere. A few weeks ago I was told off for declaring 6 Music ‘unbearably smug’ so I turned it on, listened to three minutes of a string quartet covering ‘Kashmir’ by Led Zeppelin, and turned it off again. The prosecution rests. 1Xtra is a lot more exciting but the playlist system makes it impossible to listen to for any length of time (or at the same time each day – ‘Skwod‘ soundtracked the washing up for a week, it’s great but…). Experiments with YouTube, downloading mixes, internet radio and the like have had inconclusive results.
So what now? My apologies to those who have sent music or are expecting emails – I’ll do what I can. I have posts lined up from Chrissie, Luke and, inevitably, Joe so RFM won’t be entirely silent whilst I figure this out but, with the pile of stuff for review at record levels and visitor stats stalling, I wonder if you lot have any advice.
Any ideas as to why my grapes are in the freezer?
Tags: coil, current 93, david keenan, nurse with wound, strange attractor press, whitehouse
David Keenan – England’s Hidden Reverse (revised and expanded edition, 464 pages, Strange Attractor Press)
[Editor’s note: in order to make full sense of the below, the reader is advised to consult part one here before proceeding.]
…so the hefty tome arrives and an unexpected cross-country train journey affords me the time to give it a close reading.
The new forward, as advertised, is a written version of the lecture ‘Crime Calls For Night’ which I discussed in part one. Fixing it to the page does it no favours, unfortunately, and there is little point discussing it further for two reasons. Firstly, what was good in it before remains so, as does what was questionable. Secondly, its argument is largely unsupported by the text that follows (the book’s hook is ‘England’s lunatic tradition’ (page 284), the lecture’s is ‘night time imagery’ (page VII) – they ain’t the same). It’s post-hoc, tacked on.
That said, it might surprise you that I was hoping for more of this in the book itself. I have been largely negative in my account so far, true, but stuff like this on Whitehouse:
Let’s attempt to look this thing in the face, as much as we can, without any filter of ideology or explanation or ‘understanding’. (page XIII)
is pretty invigorating. I was hoping for something polemical but deeply personal, impressionistic but rigorous, something that might have me hurling the book across the room in fury or welling up with tears of recognition. Something inspiring that would leave me fizzing with ideas of my own. Tall order, maybe, but given Keenan’s chops and unbeatable subject matter – the unnatural histories of Coil, Nurse With Wound and Current 93 – it was entirely possible.
But nope. Instead what we get is A Very Long List Of All The Things That Happened. For fuck’s sake, I thought with rising dismay, this is just another bloody music book: 400 pages of painstakingly researched explanation and ‘understanding’.
Do any of these beats sound familiar? Guy grows up a misfit, moves away, finds a crowd/purpose, fierce early work, arguments about money/credits/romantic entanglements, drink and drugs, artistic development and lengthy accounts of the ‘mature’ work (with scholarly asides on influences and collaborators), happy accidents in the studio, fortuitous meetings and so on. All these gongs are bonged in the usual order determined by the ritual, like a bored gamelan orchestra calling the court in for lunch. You’ll be amazed to learn that this time was unique and that things will never be the same again too, of course.
On one level, I understand that this is a daft criticism to make. It’s like moaning that you’ve seen it all before whenever an artist daubs pigment onto a canvas using a brush to depict a figure – Gah! It’s just a painting – but Keenan’s trad fan/critic ‘definitive’ approach robs the subject of its enviable magic.
For example, Keenan largely keeps himself out of it and, as such, a lot of total bollocks passes without any editorial comment aside from the mildest, bathetic rebuke. When, at one point, Coil decide to only start recording on equinoxes and solstices Keenan dares to describe this nonsense as ‘arbitrary’ – ooh! Meow, eh? Absenting yourself might be journalistic best practice (I dunno, is it?) but this wasn’t advertised as an oral history. Frequent, spirited challenges would have been illuminating, entertaining – inspiring even (see Bangs vs. Reed). I was expecting to disagree at points, but I was genuinely shocked at it being a grind.
Finishing the book I found I’d made a couple of pages of notes towards this review, a short list of artists and releases to check out and one or two triggered memories (apologies to anyone else who was at the 1991 Current 93/Death in June/Sol Invictus show in New Cross that gets mentioned – I was the kid front left who coughed all the way through it. I even climbed up onto the stage at one point so I could sit down). Not much, is it? Keenan isn’t a bad writer, the topic is important and clearly a huge amount of work has been done. I was up for it, despite reservations – I am regularly inspired by music writing, that’s the reason I do it myself. So what went wrong here?
Part of the answer is summed up in this quote about David Tibet by the horror writer Thomas Ligotti (pages 383-384):
To talk about Tibet’s work in aesthetic terms is relevant only to a limited extent. Like other artists whose work is in an expressionist vein … you can take or leave him, but he absolutely stands above criticism because he is completely true to his visions, beliefs, obsessions, whatever you want to call the substance of his songs … It’s simply that Tibet is working in another realm entirely. He’s alone in what he does, and that makes any evaluation of him in the conventional terms of music or literature beside the point.
I think this is bang on, indeed I’ve said similar things myself about the limits of criticism when it comes to those driven to create within what I call the no-audience underground, and that ‘pffft’ sound you can hear is the shrivelling of Keenan’s project, irreparably punctured by Ligotti’s point. It’s so damaging I’m surprised he put it in, to be honest. Tibet and friends may not be judged on their musicianship or material success (though both are mentioned) but the very form of the book itself could not be more conventional. If your subject matter is working in another realm a ‘then they did this’ music bio approach is never going to capture what is special about them.
The other, larger, part of the answer occurred to me as I was laughing at a throwaway joke from Steven Stapleton, deadpanned as he explains his fixation on Perez Prado (page 344):
I don’t dance – my hat would fall off.
Despite Keenan’s silly whining in The Wire magazine, in between the original publication of the book and its reissue it is not the underground that has died – it thrives – but the critic. The human centipede three-way of ‘artist – critic/gatekeeper – fan’ has been irrevocably unstitched by the internet and social media. No one needs to eat that shit anymore. New relationships, new, flexible ways of looking are available. Yet the critic doesn’t want to dance because their hat would fall off. That hat means a lot – wearing it allows them to publish books, write columns for magazines and appear on panels at prestigious industry events no matter how stilted or inappropriate these strategies appear to those really engaging with what is happening.
I have a colleague here at RFM who can barely keep a hat on his head – plenty have been trampled under his almost perpetual footwork. Commenting on a draft of part one he said:
For my money Keenan’s voice (along with others… there’s loads of them) has grown tired. The whole meta-rock critic thing is dead, dead, dead.
then, pausing only to pinch my cheek and grab a bunch of tapes from the review pile, he shimmied back onto the dance floor. Ha, I thought – fug lifting, head starting to nod again – couldn’t agree more.
Tags: coil, current 93, david keenan, nurse with wound, strange attractor press, the wire, whitehouse
David Keenan – England’s Hidden Reverse (revised and expanded edition, 464 pages, Strange Attractor Press)
I almost didn’t bother with (any of) this. A coffee table reissue of a book about the good old days, the original edition of which is a sought after collectors’ item. It’s hardly of burning relevance is it? Might as well have released it on Record Store Day.
That said, two things had me ‘continue to checkout’. Firstly, I was caught by the insta-meta-nostalgia on social media surrounding its re-release. The vibe seemed to be: ‘hey remember the good old days when you couldn’t get Keenan’s book about the good old days for love nor money? Well now you can!’ I remember The Small Note, short-lived indie CD shop in Leeds, tried to order a copy for me, to be paid for with the proceeds of fencing flatworm CD-rs they kindly stocked, but their line of credit was stepped on by the supplier because they were going out of business and I missed out. Good times, eh? Now I could finally have it! It’s the same urge that has the middle aged buying childhood toys on eBay, or giant King Crimson box sets. Secondly, I have become morbidly fascinated with a few examples of Keenan’s work that have come my way over the last couple of years. I shall mention three.
To begin: ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, a short piece that appeared in The Wire magazine issue 371, dated January 2015. In this piece Keenan declared the underground dead and it was much discussed at the time of publication. The scamp that forwarded me a copy expected me to blow a fuse and issue a withering line-by-line rebuttal. I was tempted – it would certainly have been deserved – but the more I thought about it, the more disheartening the prospect became. Why engage with the flatulent grumblings of a confused old uncle who, apparently quite literally, had no idea what he was talking about? Or maybe Keenan was self-aware enough to feel guilty that his vision of the underground had been gentrified, codified, canonized and calcified partly due to people like him writing books about it – and silly articles in publications like The Wire. Either way: fuck it.
Next up: ‘Perspective: The Right to Offend‘, published on the Crack magazine website, dated 3rd November 2015. Crack give the context as follows:
London-based label Berceuse Heroique was recently subject to criticism following a tweet from the label’s founder that led to a wide rebuke of the label’s use of extreme imagery.
…and Keenan uses that reaction to kick off an article castigating trends in social media and musing on the nature and purpose of ‘offence’ in popular music. Whilst this is considerably less daft than the above there are several eyebrow raising ‘citation needed’ moments and some seriously muddy argument. Take this, clipped from a section comparing ‘Belsen Was A Gas’ by Sex Pistols to ‘Buchenwald’ by Whitehouse:
An album like Buchenwald by Whitehouse has no chords, no lyrics, no rhythms, no graphics. There is nothing to hold onto, nothing to align yourself with. It’s not ambiguous; it is very deliberately and precisely put together, but it does force you back on your own response without signposting exactly how you are supposed to react. Crucially, though, it does not attempt to aestheticise horror or mass murder or the holocaust. It’s not fun. The music is irreducibly tied up with the subject matter. It sounds as horrifying, as distressing, as barbaric as the scenario it attempts to evoke. No poetry after Buchenwald? Well, there’s no poetry here. In this, Whitehouse dare to take a stand.
First, some pedantry: it is unclear whether Keenan is referring to the track ‘Buchenwald’ or the whole four track album of the same name. This may be important as the other tracks reference incest, the Boston Strangler and the work of the Marquis de Sade so whether or not Whitehouse are aestheticizing horror isn’t as clear cut if the whole record is taken into account. To keep it simple, I’ll assume he’s talking about just the track.
(Aside: the track title referencing the Boston Strangler is ‘Dedicated to Albert de Salvo – Sadist and Mass Slayer’. Songs, books, park benches etc. are usually dedicated out of love, respect or gratitude. ‘Mass Slayer’ is an unnecessarily salacious use of tabloid vocabulary. Is this a parody of sentimentalism or are Whitehouse, as could easily be argued just using the tone and usual meaning of these words, celebrating a monster? Following Keenan’s argument, why isn’t the track simply called ‘Albert de Salvo’?)
Keenan is also ambiguous about the meaning of ‘ambiguous’. At first he claims the track is not ambiguous, offering a very peculiar definition of the notion (a Donald Judd box is ‘deliberately and precisely put together’, does that make it unambiguous?) but at the end of the same sentence he says it does not signpost exactly how you are supposed to react – which is pretty much the dictionary meaning of the word. Likewise, the idea that the music is irreducibly tied up with the subject matter doesn’t hold water. Anyone with a passing interest in the genre could imagine this track retitled and appearing on another Whitehouse album or slotting into any number of industrial/noise releases. Titling it ‘Buchenwald’ isn’t enough – the kind of essentialism Keenan needs to make the point doesn’t exist.
I thought for a fair while about the final part of that paragraph. What does ‘It sounds as horrifying … as the scenario it attempts to evoke’ mean? Is Keenan saying that this track is literally as harrowing as the actual Buchenwald concentration camp and the horror that occurred there? Presumably not because that claim (that a 12 minute noise track was as upsetting as the machinery of genocide) would be preposterous to the point of obscenity. So what are we comparing? Is the track documentary – like, say, a book of photographs? Again presumably not because, despite the mood it successfully and unbearably evokes, there is nothing essential linking this particular track to this particular atrocity. What are Whitehouse taking a stand on? That genocide is bad and that evil exists in the world? Mate, we didn’t need to be told. Or is it something like the spiel on the cover of Whitehouse’s 2001 album Cruise:
That art created with anything less than unflinching engagement with reality is pathetic decadence? Who knows? As rhetoric Keenan’s account is exciting stuff, as an argument it’s gibberish. The article finishes with this call to arms:
But there is a right to offend just as there is a right to be offended. Rights exist to protect what ordinarily could never survive, what is most offensive, what is most off-message, most non-mainstream. There is also, crucially, a right to be irresponsible, a right to say no, to refuse pieties about the sanctity of life and the beauty of love and the achievements of democracy and the reputation of Boris Johnson, to scribble all over them with crayons, if you feel like it. Take that away and we lose some of the greatest art of the 20th Century, from Life Stinks by Pere Ubu through Suicide and Blaise Cendrars. What are we left with? Billy Bragg, Sting and The Lightning Seeds.
Whilst largely in agreement with this sentiment, the temptation is to remind the author that we are no longer in the 20th Century. An article about the right to offend in an age of identity politics, ideological puritanism and public shaming via social media might have been fascinating but Keenan only mentions this stuff to dismiss it (entertainingly, I admit) and crack on with the history lesson. The ‘what are we left with?’ examples are hilarious. I mean, there are literally hundreds of acts pushing things forward in brilliant, innovative ways without being bulb-ends like Gizmo (yes, really) of Berceuse Heroique. It’s been a long while since blokes in three quarter length leather coats were the vanguard and, quite rightly, plenty of them are amongst those being challenged now.
Heh, heh – The fucking Lightning Seeds. One for the kids there.
Finally: ‘Crime Calls For Night‘, an audio/visual talk presented at Off The Page, Bristol Arnolfini, September 2014. This lecture, given at The Wire magazine’s ‘literary festival for sound and music’ and subtitled ‘A phenomenology of transgression in industrial music’ (for those playing hackademia bingo: ‘house!’), is another order of magnitude less daft than the articles above.
Over 50ish minutes Keenan has some space to flesh out ideas and some of what I called gibberish above starts to make more sense (The Lightning Seeds are replaced by Joanna Newsom too, which made me laugh). The section about the adolescent nature of Paleolithic art is great and had me nosing around the internet hoping to find a cheap edition of the book he mentions (R. Dale Guthrie – The Nature of Paleolithic Art, no such luck – might have to try inter-library loans). The bits on industrial music as ritual gave me pause too – reminding me of reading things like Rapid Eye and the Industrial Culture Handbook, having my nipples pierced by Mr. Sebastian shortly after my 18th birthday and warily climbing the stairs above the photocopiers to Wildcat, the Brighton based piercing supplies shop, only to find Genesis P. Orridge there holding forth:
A day without a Prince Albert is a day lost!
Anyway, two Whitehouse tracks get an airing this time. Firstly, ‘Ripper Territory’ which is an easier sell than ‘Buchenwald’ as it contains audio from news reports of Peter Sutcliffe’s arrest so the piece is tied to the subject matter in a straightforward way. Keenan’s analysis of this is compelling – the news reports are at once banal and sensational, at odds with the band’s stomach-churning accompaniment which needs do nothing but hold up a cold mirror to reality. That Keenan finishes this section by leaving the question ‘where is Ripper territory?’ hanging unanswered (the implied answer being ‘in us’) is very smart indeed. I was less convinced, again, by the account of ‘Buchenwald’ but it certainly seemed more persuasive than the cribbed version in the ‘Right to Offend’ article. What I really need, I thought, as I rewound it for the third time, is a definitive written account of this argument…
Wait, what? I’m sorry what did you say?
Long out of print and with the first edition demanding serious money from collectors, this much-anticipated expanded edition comes completely redesigned, with many new and previously unseen photographs and ephemera. It also comes with two new chapters, a final summing up of how the Reverse has changed gear since the book was first published and a new Chapter Zero entitled Crime Calls For Night where Keenan presents a daring argument that traces the transgressive urge that animates industrial culture all the way from Palaeolithic cave art through rock n roll and punk rock and up to contemporary noise music.
Ah, OK, let me get my credit card…
In part two: ‘Crime Calls For Night’ revisited, including more on the ‘no poetry…’ idea if I can get my head around the source of the notion (Adorno: ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.’), some ‘Lester Bangs died for his own sins, not mine’ stuff about the erosion of the artist/critic divide and the redundancy of critics in general and maybe even an account of the contents of the book.
Don’t hold your breath though – it only arrived on Saturday and is a right doorstep.
Tags: andrew wild, andy crow, collecting, crow versus crow
The large volume and high quality of feedback I’ve received following my post ‘you can’t own music: some thoughts on not collecting‘ has been most gratifying. Always fun to learn I’m not just barking into the void. However, most substantial comments were in broad agreement with my position – that many of the great aspects of being a music fan can be enjoyed independent of, and are not necessarily connected to, owning and accruing the objects on which music is stored. Some who left comments were prepared to admit to ambivalence, or perverse resignation:
It seems to be madness and sanity all in one mystifying bundle.
…wrote Mark Wharton of Idwal Fisher, for example, but where was the robust defense of the physical? It was left to Andrew Wild, known to all as Andy Crow of multimedia empire Crow Versus Crow, to pick up the gauntlet. Andy is in some ways the perfect foil – he runs a radio show and podcast, he is an immensely skilled visual artist and designer and his record label has a small catalogue of high quality releases packaged with a hand-tooled attention to detail that borders on the fetishistic. Here’s his own description of a CvC release by Caught In The Wake Forever:
‘Excommunicado’ comprises a 10.5 x 10.5 cm 16 page mini art book, containing black and white inkjet prints of Crow Versus Crow’s minimal ink and pencil drawings printed on matte white paper within a 170gsm recycled card cover; four instrumental tracks from Caught In The Wake Forever, on a white-faced 3″ CDr housed within an 8.5 x 8.5 cm 100 gsm recycled paper envelope; an insert sheet containing recording and production information; a 35 mm photographic negative; and a dried rose petal, all housed within a 12.5 x 12.5 cm 100 gsm recycled paper envelope, sealed with a full colour ‘Excommunicado’ sticker.
Blimey, eh? Well, this is what he said in reply to my post. I’m going to quote it in full, bury some numbers in it and respond accordingly with Stewart Lee style mega-footnotes
As echoed above, this is a really thought-provoking piece that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed having a good couple of reads of … however much I can’t get my head around some of the points within!
What I found interesting was the (seemingly) consistency of approach to experiencing music that came through your listed examples, a kind of ‘experience – digest – excrete’ relationship. That might be a little crass as an analogy, but y’know… Please correct me if that’s wrong, by the way!  As an extreme, without a record collection or the masses of streamable material available online, such an approach doesn’t seem to really cater for repeated experiences of a record; each listening experience, perhaps straddling years, shifting with and filtered through the life experiences a person has picked up throughout that time. 
Also, what about the tactile and visual experience of a record? The art work and visual presentation of a record (which you know I hold in such high regard!)? Such experiences of a record develop and shift over time in the same way the audible parts do, for me… the waxy smell of the booklet, poring over the liner notes, soaking in the visuals, joining the dots between subjects and concepts. Maybe that’s veering into fetishistic territory there, but from my own experiences these experiences are valid parts of a whole aesthetic experience of a record. 
Plus, completely detached from any macho posturing of the size of your member, I mean, record collection in measurable square feet…a personally curated, unique to an individual, record collection is a fucking beautiful thing! An almost organic, living thing that grows entwined to your life. Not a dead archive of your past, a semi-abstracted diary of your life in collage form , but as a constellation of sounds to be continuously re-experienced in light of the newer records that have been included. 
Know what I mean? 
I’m still processing all of this myself and have spewed out my initial response with much less revision that I probably should. This article and what it throws up within me will stick around for a little longer methinks. Excellent work as ever, Rob. 
Great stuff, right? He has a beautiful and persuasive turn of phrase. OK, let’s get on with it – I’ve got stories to tell.
 Cheers comrade, much obliged.
 Ah, nope – he ain’t wrong. Should we follow through (no pun intended) with the gastric analogy then, of course, experience-digest-excrete is the only healthy state of affairs and much preferable to constipation, obesity and the like. Freudians might have something to say about collecting too, using a similar analogy. However, moving away from the gut, I’d argue that it is possible to separate the experience from perpetual ownership of a physical token of that experience. For example…
 In 1987, aged 15, my love of music was re-focussed by my prematurely switched-on friend Tim and fueled over the next few years by reading Melody Maker. Everyone likes to think that the music produced whilst they were a teenager was special but, y’know, by any standard this was a notable era.
My corner of this exploding world was comprised mainly of the whole Blast First roster, Napalm Death and other thrash and skate punk, Nth generation psyche by Spacemen 3 and the like, po-faced, high camp electronic body music by Skinny Puppy etc., various head-spinning uncategorizables like The Young Gods and Butthole Surfers and a thousand other things with techno and Nurse With Wound waiting in the wings. Much of this was championed by a weekly music press that would routinely put bands from the fringes on their covers. Remarkable times.
When Sub Pop crossed the Atlantic it fit right in. We enjoyed the slurred, balls-out sound and, as skate punks, we already had the skinny jeans and Converse baseball boots. It was a cinch to grow our hair and add a lumberjack shirt. Here’s me at the Reading Festival in 1989, aged 17:
What a charming young man.
(Aside: I was once beaten up for having long hair, although admittedly I did start the fight. On the walk to school some kid shouted
GET YOUR HAIR CUT!
…which was a daily occurrence but I decided I wasn’t having it. I crossed the road, asked
Is that the best you can do?
…and punched him as hard as I could square in his stupid face. That was my major contribution to proceedings – my arse was then handed to me. I arrived late, and was greeted by a knowing silence. I cleaned up in a PE changing room then dripped blood from my nose onto the mock exam paper I sat that morning. What can I say? I’d been upset that day because I’d just heard Hüsker Dü had split up.)
The greatest band in that scene was – and is – Mudhoney but I also saw Nirvana at least three times (I have claimed five but I think that is an exaggeration – during their breakout Reading performance I was almost certainly in my tent too stoned and/or drunk to move) – once at Portsmouth Poly, third on the bill in a crowd of less than 200.
Now, I have been an insufferable prick about music a million times but something I have never done is grudge a favourite band massive popularity. I’ve always seen it as vindication of my exceptional taste. And so it was when Nirvana’s second album and major label debut Nevermind blew up. I remember walking around town the weekend after it came out and, gloriously, everywhere seemed to be playing it. The album’s ubiquity coincided with my first year at university and I remember abandoning drinks and spilling onto the sticky dance-floor of student bops whenever the intro to ‘…Teen Spirit’ or ‘Lithium’ cut through the fug. Tracks from that album remained part of the background radiation for years.
I was, of course, profoundly saddened, angered and confused by Cobain’s suicide in 1994. It might have been the first time I cried over a death unrelated to my family. It forever altered the way I looked at the work and, when I was diagnosed with depression for the first time in 1997 and had my own suicidal feelings to deal with, it was an event I would think about from time to time. Now, as a married, (fairly) responsible 43 year old I thought about it again in the wake of the birth of our boy and again when the recent documentary about Cobain came out (which I haven’t had the strength to watch).
So here we have an album I know pretty much off by heart, hearing tracks from which reminds me of happy times discovering myself through music (‘heh, remember when we had to sleep under a pier after seeing Killdozer ‘cos we missed the last train?’) and a scene that I LITERALLY SPILT BLOOD to be part of. My experience of it also has a sombre undercurrent due to tragedy and illness that has only deepened and got more complicated as the years have passed. If 6Music play ‘Come As You Are’ whilst I’m washing up I don’t know quite what state I’ll be in by the end of it. And yet…
I’ve never owned a copy.
 Hmm… I’m not entirely discounting this, just mostly. Harking back to my teenage years again I remember being shocked and impressed by the day-glo nihilism of Big Black’s Songs About Fucking cover (front and back), complementing the bone-dry humour/horror of the white on black liner notes/stories (Atomizer is even tougher – the album opens with a song about a town where the gang rape of children had been normalised, a true story, and the cover features a cartoon invitation for the listener to blow up the entire world. Who needs Whitehouse and their dinky little winky, eh?). I also remember picking up the Dead Kennedys compilation LP Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death and spending hours examining the giant newsprint insert featuring collage by artist Winston Smith. I kinda learned how to be punk from that album and to say it changed my life would not be an exaggeration.
These are rare exceptions, however, and of their time. In more recent years I’ve seen packaging as a necessary evil useful only in keeping delicate objects, themselves largely unnecessary, from being damaged and for helping distinguish one from another. I’m coming ’round to the idea that unless you have something truly special in mind – like No Basement Is Deep Enough – then discussing packaging is like discussing what font a poem is published in – of marginal-to-no interest and of little relevance to the content (I mean Andy, mate, ’nuff respect and all that but ‘170gsm recycled card’ – lolz you perv!). As for the appreciation of the aesthetic aspect ‘shifting and developing’ over time, well, the smell of a basement second hand record shop is intoxicating, but I don’t think Andy is talking about mildew. Most good album design has punch to it, sure, but even the best is sorely lacking as an object of truly sustained contemplation. I’d like to conclude that all standard vinyl discs, compact discs, cassettes, sleeves, cases, inserts, j-cards, merzcars etc. serve the same purposes and are thus, functionally at least, indistinguishable but that is some 36th level shit I haven’t quite reached yet. I’m not far off though.
 I respect Andy for dismissing the ‘it’s like a diary’ argument as I’ve always thought it was rubbish. The idea that we can be defined by the objects we own is profoundly depressing for many reasons. Hoarding is anti-life – Marx said that (well, something like it – I’m sure one of the erudite followers of this blog can point me at the real quote). Surely we are the sum of our circumstances and our decisions – like the decision I made to sell a bunch of records one afternoon so I could afford to go out that evening with someone I ended up having a years long relationship with. Can’t even remember what those records were now but I can remember the events of that night in unpublishable detail. Heh.
 An attractive notion but I’d be genuinely interested to hear from people as to how much this actually happens. When I was in the worst of my collecting phase I had mp3s of over 2000 releases (more than 20,000 individual files) plus maybe half that again as physical objects. Thus I’d have had to listen to (approximately) eight different releases every day just to hear each one once a year (or, say, two a day for four years) – and that is without repeating any, or accounting for any new acquisitions. A percentage of any collection, possibly more than you’d like to admit, is never revisited in any meaningful way – the activity of collecting can easily overtake the dictates of sense. Whenever I read on Twitter someone say ‘hey, dug this out for the first time in 20 years and it still sounds great’ I always think ‘you’ve carried that around for 20 years just on the off chance?!?’ and the inevitable inclusion of a YouTube link makes me bang my head on the table. I’m not immune to nostalgia – I’ve humancaterpillared chains of YouTube videos that have taken me from World Domination Enterprises to Joyce Sims – but I never think ‘damn, I wish I’d bought that/not given it away’. That the internet hive mind has found a place for it is more than enough and, whilst acknowledging the musical education I’ve picked up along the way, I judge music new to me against who I am now, not what I’ve acquired in the past. Onwards!
 Not only do I know what he means but the thoughts and experiences he describes governed my own relationship with music and its objects for many years. I’m not denying these pleasures, just embracing ways of thinking differently about it.
 Aww, shucks.
…and that is more than enough for now, I think. Anyway, now the house is empty the urge to listen to that thing that Graham Dunning sent me again is making it difficult to type…
Tags: collecting, john toolan, simon aulman
On the 9th of October 2015, John Toolan – Leeds based radio show host, music obsessive and all-round egg of the highest order – posted the following tweet:
I’m really glad I got rid of the record collection I built up as a teenager …… said no one, ever
That John would express such a sentiment is no surprise. His Twitter account is a very entertaining mix of enthusiasm for recent musical discoveries, deluxe reissue fetishism, self-deprecating asides about how much he wants to spend on King Crimson merchandise and groan-inducing dad-jokes. This window into (what I presume is) his lifelong passion is never less than charming.
I wasn’t having it this time though. Something in me bristled at the idea and I found myself returning to the thought repeatedly. Before we get into anything (*ahem*) ‘philosophically’ interesting let’s spend a moment on the logistics…
Imagine, if you will, being a middle aged music fan: responsibilities, baggage, worrying gristly pellets developing under your skin in random places and so on – shouldn’t be much of a reach for some of you. Now imagine carting about an unthinned collection of objects, each one a physical token of some decision you made more than half your life ago. All that plastic and card bought because its contents were on the radio, or mentioned in Melody Maker, all the plastic and card picked up from second-hand shops on spec despite the card being torn, all the plastic and card you paid big money for at the record fair, all that plastic and card you unwrapped at Christmas or traded with your mates, or shoplifted whilst stoned, all the plastic, card and clacky little plastic boxes that you transferred the contents of the plastic and card you borrowed from friends and libraries into. All that surprisingly heavy plastic and card sliding over itself and cascading onto your bedroom floor. Now imagine having to drag all that with you forever. I’m not speaking metaphorically – you’ve moved house, you know what I mean – that stuff has to physically accompany you, occasionally demanding your attention, until THE END. Exhausting thought, eh?
Aw, come on Rob, you may be thinking – you are being disingenuous making it sound soulless and mechanical. What about the joy of discovery? The glorious awakenings? The increasingly confident relationship with musical history? The knowing looks exchanged between friends co-experiencing a life changing evening? The spontaneous tears the first time you heard [insert your equivalent of Spiderland here]? The unsurpassed moment of pure art, the pinnacle of human endeavour, that is Coltrane’s entrance on ‘A Love Supreme, Part II – Resolution’? I needn’t go on, we could each list dozens, hundreds of examples. Nor do I wish to deny it: this magic carpet ride is true and beautiful and important and life-affirming and soul-nourishing (or whatever the opposite is for you Black Metal/Harsh Noise weirdos).
However, my conjecture is this: all these great aspects of being a music fan can be enjoyed independent of, and are not necessarily connected to, owning and accruing the objects on which music is stored. Put simply: there is no need for a record collection. Yeah, yeah, you may already be thinking: ‘woah, the internet, YouTube, Bandcamp, awesome’ and all that. We’ve spent the last twenty years getting increasingly bored by comment pieces marvelling at the coming (but never arriving) death of the physical. However, that isn’t quite the tack I’m going to take. I’m interested in foregrounding ways of engaging with music that don’t involve measuring it in footage of shelving or gigabytes of storage. I’ll explain what I mean using three case studies: an old friend, a fleeting but influential acquaintance, and a reformed obsessive.
The old friend is Simon Herbertson, who will be known to many of you for his fanzines DDDD and New Ludddism, the it-would-never-load-properly-due-to-be-stuffed-with-bandcamp-and-youtube-links Pyongyang Plastics blog (now defunct) and for his own prolific musical endeavours under various names, most recently Simon Aulman. We became aware of each other when that scamp Neil Campbell sent him my first two CD-rs fifteen years ago. At the time Simon was vociferously anti-internet (‘new luddite’) and Neil knew that me only listing an email address by way of contact details would give him the hump. And so it played out on the pages of DDDD. I wrote back with my usual charm and we have shared an intermittent but heartfelt correspondence ever since. When he finally did ‘get’ the internet he jumped in with both feet and, if I remember correctly, was reprimanded by his service provider for bandwidth abuse. After various incarnations and reincarnations (Simon is prone to occasional grand gesture mega-deletions) his zines and blogs seem to have boiled down to the diary entry/comment pieces that accompany his frequent postings to Bandcamp. Simon’s writing is, it is fair to say, as unique as the world view it describes. I may profoundly disagree with him on various points but there is a shared history between us and a reason why he is one of only two writers whose work I hasten to read.
Earlier this year Simon cared for his wife Pippa at home during the final stages of motor neurone disease. In the months following her death he has dealt with the period of grief and recalibration in various ways, one of which is decluttering the house they shared. The text accompanying the album try to succeed to please (intensely repetitive series: 1), released via Bandcamp on 6th July, reads as follows:
Keeping busy has been a big help, and so has decluttering. My “record collection” now consists of about 40 CD(R)s. That’s it. That is the only physical manifestation of my love of music. Now that I’m trying to rebuild my life and make new friends and new lovers, the big worry is that people will want to see proof of my professed love of music. And there really is nothing.
I’ve never been much interested in the facts/stories around music, so it’s not as though I can make up for lack of physical objects by talking knowledgeably about music. All I have are these 40 5-inch placky albums. Around 15 of them are (very loosely) “classical” – Tippett, Britten, Vaughan Williams, Copland, Bartok, Finzi, Debussy, Howells …. oh & I’ve forgotten that little boxed set of all of Dowland’s works – so that’s up from about 15 to about 27.
The remaining 25-ish albums are all “”rock” – about 6 by Joni – Travelogue, Don Juan, Wild Things, Mingus, Hejira … about 4 by Prefab Sprout (Jordan plus several Best-Ofs), 2 by Wire (Pink Flag, 154), 2 by the Cocteau Twins (Victorialand, 4 Calendar Cafe), 2 by Richard Harris (Slides, Webb Sessions), 2 by Nick Drake (2nd & 3rd), and then odds/ends by e.g. John Martyn (Sapphire) & Roedelius (Selbstportrait 1) & David Sylvian (Beehive) … These are the albums that a lifetime loving music have distilled. Nothing that is remotely “experimental” – there just isn’t enough time left anymore. There is only one album that was made within the last quarter-century – White Denim’s Fits. There is no evidence that I ever listened to much music. I have no evidence that I ever did fanzines. There is no evidence that I ever owned a tape.
There is no evidence that I ever bought or owned an LP or 7″ single. There is no evidence that I ever bought a music mag/paper in my life. There is no evidence that I have ever been to a gig. There is no evidence of all the years (decades) that I spent blitzed out on whisky and cider and gin playing music over and over weeks at a time. There is no evidence that I ever really liked music at all. Can I be considered a music fan ? If not, then there is really no evidence that I ever even existed. Cos music was nearly everything. And now I’ve reduced it to nearly nothing. Even the stuff I make – nothing. And the closer it all gets to nothing, the more perfect too – it’s all becoming so small and quiet and repetitive and like someone has clicked on fade-out and is waiting for it to happen.
Apologies for quoting at such length but I find the implications of this piece fascinating. We could argue about our own ‘desert island’ choices of course, but to do so would be to miss the point. To pummel it home: Simon self-published hand-typed, punk collage, photocopied fanzines on a regular basis for *years* in which he championed plenty of what I now call the ‘no-audience underground’ as well as music of the type listed above, he scoured the boot sales, he ripped the internet onto his hard drive and waded through sparsely populated areas of Bandcamp and YouTube in order to present dozens and dozens of links with an unsinkable enthusiasm. Of course he can be considered a music fan – one of the greatest I have known – and that is what gives the thought he expresses here such power and heaviness: being a music fan is not about what you own, or even what you know, it is who you are. Many of us mistake the ownership of objects for the experience of their contents. Simon not only offers a way of decoupling the two in your head but actually carries the thought through into the world. Dude.
The fleeting but influential acquaintance was a guy my friend Chad knew at art college in the late 1980s. I spoke to him a few times and, infuriatingly, can’t remember his name (sadly, Chad is no longer with us and so cannot be asked). What I do remember is that he was crazy for music – he had few other topics of conversation, he listened to John Peel, he pored over the weekly music press, he was that guy, y’know, that is front-left of the stage at every show (possibly the reason why that is where I always seem to stand). His zeal was refreshing, never overbearing, and his evangelising made converts. I never visited his flat but imagined a shrine/cave stuffed with tape and vinyl. Nope. According to one incredulous visitor this lad owned, in total, one item of recorded music: a copy of “SuGarShit SharP” by Pussy Galore. A cracker, no doubt, but when asked where the rest of it was he just shrugged. He wasn’t interested in amassing a collection – music wasn’t what he owned, it was who he was. I was impressed, still am. Huh, you may have scoffed at Simon’s story above, easy to be a Zen master and chuck it all when any decision you make can be rectified with PayPal and Discogs – well here it was done in the pre-internet era.
The reformed obsessive is me. As the son of a librarian the urge to shelve was perhaps hardwired and from the age of about 10 through to my thirties I collected comics, books, films and music – most media that came in rectangular packages. For example, I once had every published word by Philip K. Dick including foreign language editions and pulps from the 1950s (I even had a Geocities site dedicated to the exercise), I once had every bleep by Aphex Twin (his recent Soundcloud splurge made me feel a bit queasy when I remembered the lengths I went to with Usenet tape trading), I once had every squawk I could find by Miles Davis lovingly archived on scores of tapes, I taught myself the history of Japanese cinema via DVDs bought from eBay and so on and so on…
But – there came a time in each obsession where I started to get uneasy and, usually following a tipping point like moving house that made me confront the objects, I would sell, dump or give away this previously precious collection only for it to be replaced by some new interest soon after. I didn’t understand this bulimic behaviour until I started to get a handle on my mental illness a few years back. I realized that whilst each obsession began with a genuine love of its subject matter it was eventually overtaken by an urge to control and simplify at least one aspect of a chaotic and complicated world – this urge is part of my illness and obsessive behaviour is how it is expressed. The desire to accrue these connected possessions became more important than the art they contained. And that’s just fucking perverse, right?
From then on the idea of collecting, or even the amassing of objects in general, has made me a little anxious – associated, as it is in me, with periods of feeling out of control. With one or two exceptions (Culver, natch) I’m now happy to take things as they come. Mr Toolan may despair at how little of my teenage collection I still have to hand but via the internet we all now bathe in a constant flow of mind-blowing brilliance and I have near-instant access to a thousand times more music than I could ever have dreamed of owning. More importantly, though, being a music fan is not necessarily connected to owning a collection of objects on which music is stored, nor is it even about having access to the internet’s ridiculous archive. You can be a lifelong obsessive like Simon and remain so even after thinning your belongings to near nothing, you can engage with music wholeheartedly in every other respect like my mysterious past acquaintance, or you could give up on the notion of collecting (almost) entirely, as I have tried to do for the sake of my health.
Let’s face it – you can’t own music can you?
Coda about this blog:
Throughout this difficult year, plagued by illness, I’ve had a strained relationship with RFM and with music. I have, of course, written brilliant reviews and scintillating think pieces that have earned gasps of appreciative amazement from loyal readers but I’ve also sent a lot of emails apologizing for delays and spent many hours feeling underwhelmed by the task at hand.
Then, a thought started to form as I sat on the cold floor of Wharf Chambers listening to Eddie Nuttall’s Aqua Dentata set a few weeks ago. I drifted, eyes half closed, my semi-meditative state only interrupted by the chafing of gristly pellets under my skin. Towards the end I realised I had fully, and without any provisos, enjoyed a piece of music. I hadn’t been thinking about what I was going to say/write, nor was I nervously looking at the ‘date received’ column on my ‘review pile list’ document (yes, such a thing exists).
As I started writing this piece I mulled over that experience and I suddenly saw the similarity between my uneasiness about collecting and my recent uneasiness about the business of RFM. Was RFM a collection?!? I thought back to my celebration of reaching 500 posts. Nnnngh! It IS, isn’t it? Or at least that is how it came to seem due to illness stopping me engage properly with the subject matter.
OK, now I’m feeling a lot better you’ll excuse me if I put my mp3 player on and go for a walk – never mind the rain – I better lose myself for a while.