Friday, 30 May 2008


As more than enough people have said in the past, it doesn't matter where you came from, it's where you're at, and if the nowness is fresh enough, where you're going can wait until tomorrow. Katie White used to be in a girl group called TKO - and the fact that so many can still consider that a negative in and of itself demonstrates how long a way we yet have to travel - who never had a hit (though I note with no small karmic amusement that Le Tigre's only UK hit single to date is entitled "TKO") and whom I never knowingly heard. And the training, if training it be, comes through very strongly throughout the first Ting Tings album We Started Nothing, even as she and drummer Jules de Martino, a reverse and superior White Stripes, take immense care to avoid cliche; one fully expects, for instance, the intro to "Be The One" to herald a typically gloopy Cowell-friendly ballad but instead the song glides into an exultant thrash. They can do 1981 (but better) whitegirl funk ("Shut Up And Let Me Go"), drowsy music box waltzes into nowhere in particular ("Traffic Light") and Camden Underworld girl indie to full early-mid nineties level (and beyond, with the steadily incursive horns on the long, closing title track). They too have a long way to go, just as SIlverfish or Shampoo once had, and it is to be hoped that they will be allowed to do so.

By now "That's Not My Name" should be acknowledged as one of the great and most natural of number ones, even if its chart topping status as a single means I will have to comment on it in detail elsewhere and with some hindsight-induced perspective, and I think it fully fair, as with Daphne and Celeste in another age, to say that disliking it signifies a deeper dislike and/or suspicion of pop; naivety is the least loseable of attributes, especially in music writers, despite our daily shields of anti-buffering cynicism.

So I will limit myself to commenting on "Guest DJ," and quantitatively it does not require much comment; beginning with a semi-glum two-chord seesaw recalling the later stages of Pavement albums (e.g. "Our Singer") to echo the feelings of "indigestion" and "growing up undone," its lifelessness is intruded upon and kissed by the gradually growing clamour of de Martino's drums and White's guitar and voice, dropping her Salford aitches but forceful when she needs to be (the astonishing growl of "making" at 1:51-1:52 on "We Walk"). "Nothing but the local DJ," White muses, but it turns out he and his songs were all she needed, "gave hope and a brand new day," as the gearstick is shifted upwards and one of the great pop choruses becomes visible, somewhere ideally sited between Kim Wilde and Bikini Kill. "Imagine all the girls, ah ah, ah ah/And the boys, ah ah, ah ah/And the strings, ee ee, ee ee/And the drums, the drums, the drums, the DRUMS..."

She hangs on to those DRUMS like Harold Lloyd to the Ministry of Sound clock and the DRUMS are what hooked this listener onto her cagoule-tail - she will not let them go - and the song now becomes steadily more confident, attacking and celebratory. "Blowing our mind in a world unkind/Gotta love the bpm!" The spinner as saviour: "We wore his love like a hand in a glove/His preacher, plays it all night long" - so already there is a nostalgia but unlike, say, "Weak Become Heroes," it is not a particularly hopeless one; the sun still radiates through White's soul as her heart creases up with origami eagerness. As "Great DJ," that brilliant ode to the power of music to deliver, rescue and renew, reaches its inevitable climax, we realise that its magic is indeed "all about the where and when" but know that its strength is sufficient to keep its message relevant for minds prepared to live and dance against the crackdowns; the route down which Girls Aloud, not to mention the rest of us, should be travelling.

Thursday, 29 May 2008

SPARKS: Strange Animal

Age and energy. As I write, Sparks are approximately halfway through their 21-date London engagement at which they are playing every one of their 21 albums, in order, one album per gig. Had I the time, money and energy I would more than willingly have attended all of these performances with the same fuck you finesse which I suspect inspired the Maels to come up with the notion in the first place; a roue's raspberry - look how much we've achieved and marvel at how patiently we assembled this body, absolutely independent of outside considerations.

And the age. Don't forget their ages; both Maels are currently hovering on the border of sixty, and while there are clear hints in the CD booklet photos to Exotic Creatures Of The Deep that it is no longer 1972 - Ron's polite hornrims, Russell's far more sharply drawn and slightly less trusting face and neck - the invention, though now confined to their own Sparks Studio back home in L.A., is autumnal but still vibrant, in an age seeking to deny that age is no longer an issue. No more is pop a parallel to sport - at your peak in your late teens and early twenties, spent or cynical or too rich by 26, out of serious consideration at 30 followed by forty years or so of steady, internalised decline (thirty, a year when most of us haven't even worked out how it all works yet, and for those yet to reach it, that goes for forty too) - but then we also have to remember how the original surviving innovators of the sixties and seventies have for the most part simply (or complexly) continued to proceed forward because no one told them to stop (it's the artists born in 1977 or 1988 of whom we need to be a little careful - what know they of pop history who only pop history know?) and so Sparks have marched ever onward, like an unburdened Queen; the correspondence (musical, lyrical, stylistic) between Queen II and Kimono My House, for instance, was noted at the time, but since Russell was never going to be Freddie, he and Ron have been mostly left alone to prove it all (for) themselves.

Much of the new album suggests a grander Queen in surviving decline; the long-held dissolves between balladic elegance, guitar sockets and pondering harmonies in "The Director Never Yelled 'Cut'" or the elegiac, stabbing harmonies of "Likeable" whose leitmotif scatters its seed throughout the rest of the record. "I've Never Been High" is a gorgeously self-denying lament which would have fitted Mercury like a cummerbund. But the Maels' conceits are both more playable and more deadly serious; they like to experiment with opposites or polar swaps, thus "(You Got Me) Pregnant" which puts Russell in total role reversal ("A wham and bam and thank you sir is all that I would get from her") or the deliberate mis-juxtapositions of "This Is The Renaissance." "I Can't Believe That You Would Fall For All The Crap In This Song" pits its off-the-rack lyrical cliches against furious schaffel which eventually and quite unexpectedly mutates into gentle, piano-led meditation over (or under) which Russell concludes, "I want you/And only you and only you, my love" with no irony whatsoever. "Good Morning" finds Russell nearly unable to communicate with himself, let alone the Russian one-night stand with whom he has surprisingly woken up. "Lighten Up, Morrissey" is the record's catchiest and most straightforward song, a plea from idol to idolator not to set such a stiffly high example such that he can never reproduce it for his own partner.

But "Strange Animal" sums up their undiminished, mischievous vision, an extremely artful song where the drifter (who turns out to be the listener/consumer, although he has recently "been in a fight with some Government men who were high as a kite") wanders into the song as though it were an all-night grocery, every other song being shut ("There are songs that are sealed that will not let you in"). The parties involved in the song itself are nervous but allow him to enter. It's not too long before he starts questioning the song's validity and worth ("The song lacks a heart, comes off overly smart," "You need to be clear and a lot more sincere"). They eventually take umbrage but the listener is having none of it ("When a song lets me in, I can see where it's been - a kind of reversal of the "once it's out, the notes are just circulating in the atmosphere" ethic) and expresses his severe disappointment with the song's worth ("...this song shows no signs of a grander design/Entertainment or art, one should know from the start"). Despondent but intent, he decides to kill them all and start (the song) again, though keeps the chorus - the danger of letting the recipient too close to what the artists might or might not have meant to express, such that they now feel they "own" the song and can rub the artist out of the picture, without true bilateral correspondence.

This is all punctuated by the energetically sad refrain of "What a strange animal we are" while the music shifts confidently from Weill opera through parlour piano to punk thrash and finally to gospel organ - how is this song being constructed even as we're listening to it, and is the act of listening contributing to the musicians' ultimate obliteration? Is it, the Maels ask, really offering nothing more than a convenient mirror? Does a one-way pane of meaningful glass between artist and audience obstruct or guide? Or is the song just so damned sprightly and magical that it doesn't matter and we can comfortably detach ourselves to a warmer second person of listener? Are those spectators in Islington just waiting for them to forget lines, to fumble chord changes, to appear less than perfect, or do they (as I expect they are doing) laugh conspiratorially with the Maels, knowing that living this long and achieving this much is more, much more, than sufficient?

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

JOHN ZORN: Honey-Cab

In retrospect - note how such things are never expressed in the present tense - 1983's Locus Solus double album should have been the kind of record which would have made the charts if the implications of New Pop, at least in terms of letting all that other music in, had been properly followed through. In his notes to the 1991 CD reissue Zorn himself admits as much, but of course by 1983 it had long since been proved that only the vague indicators of colour and happy were wanted by The Public rather than any trouble (or, for that matter, Any Trouble, but anyway...). 38 tracks on the CD version, of which only the last eight were preordained in terms of structure; otherwise it's a three-way improv tag team all the way through with Zorn as the only constant and no improvising game plan as such - Arto Lindsay and Anton Fier constructing a sort of anti-Subtle Body, Wayne Horvitz and Ikue Mori re-digesting James Bond, DJ Whiz Kid and drummer M E Miller machine-gunning Dutch Schultz. Something for everyone, as long as every one is willing to be identified. Words and throwdowns improvised, few tracks exceeding the three minute limit (so almost all of them remain eligible for Eurovision)...a Newer Pop for those with ears ready to bend to full flexion.

In the immediate post-No Wave late seventies and incipient lounging early eighties, Zorn's direct input was a vital raygun for improv, forcing its processes to admit elements from everything else that was happening, especially from rock and pop (not in that order), and also reintroducing an element of fun - not the vexingly smug Rag Week collegiate "humour" endemic to career British improvisers (they know who they are) but a custard pie laced with red peppers of dynamos, all the better to broaden and deepen the reach and ambition of improvised music.

Zorn's most emblematic 1983 release was probably Yankees, a less Cool School modification of the old Giuffre/Brookmeyer/Hall template with George Lewis and Derek Bailey; light(ning fast) and swift swallows of interplay with added game calls, one of the best soundtracks to its summer (and I clearly should take the opportunity here to salute the recently departed Jimmy Giuffre, one of Woody Herman's original Four Brothers who went on to sketch an expressionist pastoralism in the freer skies of blue with great skill and restraint, and was also a very early champion of the music of Carla Bley). Whereas Locus Solus is as near to a "rockist" album as Zorn dared prior to Naked City, Pain Killer etc. But it also pops like an under-watched arthritic knee when the listener is less than careful.

Most immediately captivating of all these power trios is the opening one, featuring the turntables of Christian Marclay and the voice (and improvised lyrics) of Peter Blegvad as Zorn cackles and crows in and beyond any space that he can find. "Bass And The Treble" may be the most unlikely (if essentially tender of heart) yet most relevant of Karen Carpenter tributes, but for now let's settle on the speed blossom of "Honey-Cab," a sort of "Crosstown Traffic" set in the 19th dimension. Marclay unleashes the pocket history of music as Blegvad mutters and muses about his rider - "black as carbon/On paper white as snow" - polyrhythmic African drumming giving way to Toytown xylophones, bleeps of whatever was in that week's top ten snatched away just before you can recognise them, coded radiospeak, a fulsome operatic tenor, an optimistic bluff about Blegvad's detached but ecstatic moan. "Spend every dollar twice!" he declares as Zorn switches back to first gear and the window rolls down to take in some fruitier oxygen. I still think it could go Top 30, at the very least.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008


I like charts. I know full well that they are manipulated on a whim, don’t really give the full picture of which music actually is most popular in any given week or even on any given day; yet the regular change of order and the placing of disparate artists together appeals to my modest Aspergic desire for the world to make a sort of sense, even if the sense is only apparent to me, and the story they tell over half a century is an endlessly engrossing one, as much for the music which is missing or excluded as that which is included or accepted. Quite often charts are useful tools for debunking received opinion; this week’s featured Capital Gold retrochart, for instance, was the list from 14 December 1961 which pretty determinedly holed the deceiving notion that pop between Buddy and the Beatles was a bland, black hole, while the 24 May 1980 chart featured on Pick Of The Pops – the first chart that Ian Curtis did not live to see or hear – was a startling reminder of nascent apocalypse, from the “drift gently into mental illness” of “Mirror In The Bathroom” to Kate’s increasingly desperate “in, out”s in “Breathing”; it is beyond unsettling that the first post-Curtis number one was “Suicide Is Painless,” the vocal version of the theme from M*A*S*H*.

But there remain under-reported singles which have largely eluded me, buried in this complex mesh of orchestrated commercial history. I recently located “Jungle Fever” on a second hand CD; one of those hugely frustrating Friends Reunited year-by-year compilations (this one being 1972), 99% of which consists of songs you already own half a dozen times over but also includes that one canny curveball of a track which is hard to find elsewhere and thus one has to resign oneself and dig into the petty cash for the pound required to own it. Hugely irritating, but research and pleasure are so subtly intertwined.

I never saw the film Boogie Nights, in which “Jungle Fever” was apparently featured, and had otherwise never previously or knowingly heard the track, even though subsequent exposure reveals that it’s been sampled on a couple of dozen, if not more, rap standards. The Chachakas were a Belgian group who had apparently been going for some time, if their 1962 UK Top 50 entry “Twist Twist” was anything to go by, but “Jungle Fever,” described in I Wanna Be Sedated as a “pre-Donna Summer/Spike Lee/Plastic Bertrand orgasmatron” – so you understand why it was vital for me to hear it – was their big moment; a million-selling top ten hit in the States but only just scraping into the Top 30 in Britain, and its playing on Radio 1 was not exactly encouraged (which no doubt explains its stalling at #29).

It stands as a fairly secure halfway house between “Je T’Aime” and “Love To Love You Baby”; a slow, sneaky groove of modest percussion, crouching dragons of horns and hidden tigers of smack dab funk guitars intermittently interrupted by nearly wordless pre-coital female moans and exhortations (apparently voiced by the wife of Tito Puente!) with the occasional disturbing shriek of “No, no, NO!,” always climaxed by a low blow of flatulence from the trombone. Eventually a male voice joins in this echt-bestiary, and soon they are panting and clambering over each other, particularly in the climactic interlude where everyone drops out except the tambourine player, relentlessly shaking his or her thing while the lovers (if lovers they be) get down to basics. Then it ends with a decisive trombone expiration and a sigh of intense satisfaction. As persuasively cheesy as any of the Vampyros Lesbos-type cult fare from the same period, even though listening to it I am already visualising a 1972 bedroom painted in a singular shade of pink and populated by Derren Nesbitt and Gabrielle Drake, earning the money for (they hope) better things.

Friday, 23 May 2008


This thing, the grain of the voice, that Barthes kept talking about; quite often it matters more than the song that's being sung, that is if the listener is inclined to maintain the illusion of lack of distance between singer and song for long enough; that is, if there is any illusion about it. No one doubts that the Ian Curtis of "Twenty Four Hours" was singing about himself, nor the Kurt Cobain of "No Apologies." But hedge against those certainties Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)" or, as though I needed to emphasise it further, Randy Newman's "Short People," which are clearly character studies. Then consider the huge grey area in the middle where Liz Frazer or Beth Gibbons may or may not be concealing truths about themselves, may or may not be narrators at one remove.

So you see the difficulties I have in talking about Martha Wainwright, a woman who by all accounts is happily married (married, moreover, to Brad Alberta, the musical director and principal producer of her new album, which to add to snaky ladders is entitled I know you're married but I've got feelings too) yet who spends these 49 quietly exhausting minutes torn, almost unutterably torn, between husband and non-husband, between future love and lost love, between herself and the River Niger. Or a guy named George who thinks Beefheart is above the common man. It's not easy, and I think that intentionally so.

The cover, controversial to canting purists, is still vaguely ambiguous; an inverted monochrome Martha sprawled all over her sofa, a strange smile of half-closed eyes but no other obvious evidence of recent self-pleasure. On the reverse, a golden Martha as caught in the half-light by Sam Taylor Wood, on the left of the picture, gazing apprehensively towards the mirror beside a shrunken disco ball. The record is a journey through an intermittently troubled river, during which various passengers - a Pete Townshend here, a Donald Fagen there - hop on and off as unobtrusively as possible, for the show is hers. Rufus confines himself to one cameo (harmony on the aforementioned "George Song") while Kate and Anna are best and most startlingly heard on a straight rendition of "See Emily Play," Martha tucking Syd's nursery rhyme back into its original cot but is the childhood-as-key thing really that obvious?

What is unavoidably obvious is that these thirteen performances are vitally carried by Martha and what she does with her voice more than what she writes with her hands; the slowly stunning (like a sixteen-ton safe hitting one's head at a speed of 2 rpm) "In The Middle Of The Night" with its death-spelling long black limousine outside, the way Martha's tongue tries manually to invert the line "As you walk to the top of the hill" so that he tumbles down in time to meet the steady breakout of Africa/Brass horns acting as delayed reaction police sirens; the curving malunion of "Bleeding All Over You" where her gutturals make "daughter" indistinguishable from "cow shit"; the terrifying non-hysteria of "You Cheated Me."

In many places married isn't too far away from Third; the flotation Sherman tank of "Tower Song" seems as unanchored as anything Gibbons utters (sex as 9/11 metaphor/substitute), the Lydon cackle of "I'm on the back end of you" (which she makes into one gargling gargoyle of a syllable) in "Hearts Club Band." In "River Niger" her labial vowels ("Take, take my hand, and push") and the candid caress of Cameron Greider's nylon acoustic eventually merge with an Eno night. The serenely shattering "Jimi" (half dusk prayer, half arsequake eruption) finds her racking her soul for her dad, herself as her dad, "this dead woman in my lane," "this man in my house," slamming her head against different doors all labelled The Past in different hues of perditious pastel.

But come together it must - and her "See Emily Play" (did she get sung to sleep by it in her childhood?) is the necessary glue to stop it and her from tumbling apart - and "I Wish I Was" accomplishes the fitting fusion. Out for the count ("I can hardly move/And I sure can't groove") she slowly wills herself back to facing life and love, not necessarily in that order - the long, verge-of-silent sustains on "afraid" and "say" and "see" in consecutive verses indicate a slow refuelling at an emotional pit stop, each slightly more audible than its predecessor. "Do I know what anything means?" she snaps at one point (to herself, but maybe also to those of us foolish enough to try to interpret her snaps directly). She rifles through talk shows ("not music"), PBS and BBC, doesn't want to meet the press, but the pain will not be subdued, indeed is exacerbated by her hammering self-guilt, and so she has no choice but to escape through the lips of that final, almost triumphant "real" in the line "Is the only thing that is real (viz. "the hunger that I feel")."

The chorus also steadily gets stronger: "I wish I were a singer, a dancer/A dancing for your love" but it's now too strong, Garth Hudson's law marshal piano declaiming its judicial hammer behind her, before finally she relents, and yields, goes past words in a crochet of an intercourse with Chaim Tannenbaum's mandolin; larynx and strings tickling each other like loose pillows in an overstocked bed shop, reacting, caressing, snugly settling, and both have the grain of those feelings too.

Thursday, 22 May 2008


"Them there days, those temporary days, they're over boys, move on."

The easiest thing would be to say that the second Shortwave Set album was one of the great 1968 albums - the beginnings of burnout just after the initial burst - but the record, whose eleven songs are linked in an ever-strengthening 39-minute chain, warns against unthought-through nostalgia, from its title (Replica Sun Machine) downwards, or sideways; the above observation is taken from a song entitled "Now 'Till 1969." There is also a song called "Yesterdays To Come" down whose steely corridors (additional spiking courtesy of Van Dyke Parks' characteristically challenging string chart, shuddering with warnings not to proceed backwards) the group sing of "all our tomorrows" merging into "a fine lament" for a past which is ungraspable, if not unlearnable.

This is not to say that Replica Sun Machine doesn't contain hope within its reluctantly dark cloisters, but the Shortwave Set's euphoria is always guarded, and usually with good reason; the slow warnings of benign Armageddon in "Replica," behind whose cobwebbed floorboards emerge the patiently vast temple of Parks' strings, as though glimpsing but a solitary brick of St Paul's from underneath the cistern; the trembling body swerves of Those Lying In Power described in "House Of Lies." The unresolving "Sun Machine" ends up saying goodbye even to the replica, welcoming a "poor imitation," eyes shielded from the unspeakable horror of the next dawn.

Though still made on a comparatively low budget, this is nonetheless, and perversely, the Shortwave Set's big budget album; the SE8 junk shop findings replaced by the calm anti-authority of Dangermouse in the producer's booth, Parks and John Cale dropping by to dabble subtle dashes of magic into the group's broth (for instance, the return of the "Sunday Morning"/"Northern Sky" celeste in "Glitches N' Bugs") though Cale largely confines himself to "atmospherics," mainly the abstract drifts of links between the songs; both Parks and Cale's contributions come to full fruition as they take over "I Know" for the elegantly distorting long fadeout.

I'm not sure, however, that expert gloss is a long-term substitute for happy accidents - the beauty of The Debt Collection lay in its seemingly "unproduced" approach, that they were making it up as they travelled along and stumbled across unforeseen Cortesian revelations, that Millican and Nesbitt and Humperdinck and MFP Hawaiian ukuleles and Tomita could be deployed to help produce a new awe. This is a potential trap in which the Shortwave Set need to be careful not to make themselves too comfortable.

Nonetheless, when the songs are so strong - as they certainly are here, by and large - when Ulrika's voice comes through so forcefully, yet non-imposingly, on the 1980 Clash-with-Ellen-Foley diatribe that is "No Social," its strength is still natural. The key songs, though, are the first and the last; forget that "Harmonia" is the name of an obscure Krautrock group and listen to what they're trying to convey in its ruinous majesty - a guide to a better life, while the next nine songs describe what happens if we hesitate to take the right path, cling to an entirely unhelpful yesterday; the "maybe next time" and "maybe sometime" warnings which "Harmonia" conveys in its milky breast - on your own, in a dream that seemed about you, then you called my name, told me how to find you, and it is THEN that you have to embark on that path towards the future; it must be THIS time...and you grasp the nettle and find it is a feather. Then, at the other end of whatever blast has occurred, "The Downer Song," the patient campfire/after the fire singalong ("there's something wrong, there's something wrong") as a "Genetic Engineering" voice (but now female) repeats "Love one one one another...NOW" throughout. That's "now" as in "not yesterday" and a hundred thousand reasons why it - and we - matter.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

SCOOTER: The Question Is What Is The Question?

So is the wind finally changing back? Out of the long dark tunnel of Third and into the longer, deceptively brighter promenade of Jumping All Over The World? The commercial triumph of both would suggest a New Pop fightback, and not before time either - the eleventh hour victory of Scooter over the new plank of stern wood masquerading as a Madonna album is a significant event, slow week or not, particularly since it represents a gigantic 99 cone of a fuck you salute to the venerated music press, the slightly less venerated blogosphere, the deadly static mainstream radio of this nation - no one bothered to bother with them, suffocating in "proper" "new" "music," so they sneaked up and walked away with the prize.

Nobody saw it coming, not even the array of popists currently busy watering themselves over the flaccid MoR mock pop of Alphabeat. This is because "experts" who "matter" don't hang around HMV of a Saturday mid-afternoon, watching the copies of Jumping All Over The World complete with bonus free 20 Greatest Hits CD jumping off the shelves. Isn't that an idea waiting to be expanded - why, if Athlete, say, want to flog a few more copies of their next stillborn and polite hiccup of a record they could do worse by including a bonus free CD of, say, Trout Mask Replica or Songs For Swinging Lovers. That would help get the buyers back into the shops - except, of course, as I said, they are in the shops, filling them all up, but just not buying what the Guardian or Popjustice would like them to buy, the latest pitch from their pals in *blank for legal reasons* or *ditto* PR.

And it's high time that we started demolishing these rancid stables of canon again. When I started out on the Portishead thing a fortnight plus ago I decried the failure of nearly all contemporary music and music writing to reflect the horrific grief I and many others felt as Tory Britain slowly and smugly reasserted itself. But this was also a kick reaction against the lack of actual pop in contemporary pop - the Brit School scrubs, the Dermot O'Leary rep reliables, the "polite" way forward; all ashamed of being pop, all not wanting to live next door to other races unless they're 30 or 40 years older. Even the declining Xenomania one-act empire (let's not bring the shameful Gabriela Climi into any discussions on "pop") has stuffed its gob with so much meaning-free subtext that it's beginning to turn purple and choke.

There's hardly any urge to party again, and a lot of the time that's what pop needs; not a semi-sit down lecture on what such and such a record could be, but putting out banger after banger and THEN theorising about it, if you've got your breath back. So Scooter - who, let us remember, proudly proclaimed on 1996's "Back In The UK" that "we started in 1994" - are exactly the refreshing hosed bath of sherbert that pop needs, and the fact that they're all more or less the same age as me should make the kids improperly ashamed.

More importantly, they can party and deliver subtle stand-up lectures at the same time. I don't know any other act who bases EVERY one of their tunes on the precepts laid down in the KLF manual but Scooter are one - on the greatest hits CD alone, witness and wonder at the "It's Grim Up North" quotes and the "Join the JAMMs!" exhortations rumbling through the brilliant "Apache Hits Rock Bottom!" (the KLF do over the Shadows), not to mention "The Logical Song" passim and everything else I mentioned the last time I wrote about them. On the new album proper they restrict their direct KLF references to the MC5 intro (uncensored) which heralds the amazing "Jump That Rock" in which huge chunks of Status Quo's "Whatever You Want" are redeployed to cheerfully violent means, including the entire, rubato guitar-only introduction (after which HP Baxxter takes a huge, satisfied breath as though just having demolished another pint of strawberry cider) before the riff is mechanised and gradually speeded up to become stock car crash custard pie 20000000 bpm mentasm! The Quo invent Atari Teenage Riot!

And if another lamentable fact of modern musical media life is that bands cannot stage custard pie fights on TV, like Wizzard used to do on TOTP, and anyway the health and safety Colins wouldn't let them get away with that these days, then be aware that the new Scooter album is the profoundest of custard pies aimed at the bullseye of tepid, timid pseudo-pop in 2008. Half the tracks follow exactly the same formula as they have nearly always observed, i.e. unlikely old hit sung with the voice sped up to 96 rpm then being subsumed by hysterical techno crashes and Baxxter's sublime/subliminal vocal non-sequiturs; witness the parable about the three men in a boat with four cigarettes but no matches relayed in the track which is reasonably entitled "And No Matches" over some crummy old resuscitated Eurohit ditty which sounds like Gunter Grass live at Cream.

"Enola Gay" is a hardcore version of "Enola Gay" which I'm sure OMD will relish; "Neverending Story" is THAT "Neverending Story" and the deceptive gift of Scooter's version is demonstrating just how lovely Moroder's meandering but logical melody line is without the distracting voice and mullet of Limahl. "Cambodia" is a surprisingly solemn recasting of the old Kim Wilde electro-weepie.

But even the best of parties must hold a conscience, and that comes with the increasingly uncompromising run of tracks towards the album's end; a reading of the Sisters of Mercy Goth chestnut "Marian" is performed straight, and partly in German, with Baxxter adding a layer of vulnerability to the trademark Eldritch baritone, and reminds us of the incredible debt all of this music owes to the equally unheralded Front 242s and Front Line Assemblies and Young Gods of a generation past. As for "Lighten Up The Sky" and "The Hardcore Massive" we could almost BE listening to Thrill Kill Kult or even Laibach; great bronze arcs of atonal rays of rhythm, nudging ever more certainly towards omnisonic disturbance.

Then it's back to the beginning, with a nod to the word-perfect dictionary definitions which open and close the record (to the accompaniment of the same classical sample used on Funky Monkey's "Peaceman"!), and maybe the record's two greatest achievements, the title track which introduces the concept of Bounce Techno (as in Space Hopper, or as in Human Resource's "Dominator" slowed down to manageable speed) and heavily quotes Sailor's "Glass Of Champagne" to the accompaniment of football crowds and Baxxter's frenzied "Jungle jumpers under orders!," and then the dazzling "The Question..." which uses an ancient Mouth and MacNeal sub-Eurovision jingle of a song, puts it at maximal speed and then demolishes it, with the improbable aid of that crusty old Lyn Collins/JB "yeah...whoo!" sample which I haven't heard since they'd been reduced to the Andrew Lloyd Webber novelty hit level in the early nineties. HP is in demon form here - his "no diggity diggity HP" insertions confirming a TOTAL understanding of what makes pop - with references to his prick being longer than Rick's, wonderful Mars, fixing a candle with a spanner, "Pi nami nama" (followed of course by "like a hammer"), and the usage of timeworn samples is beyond inspired (the "LOUDER!" that comes between "the question is" and "what is the question?"). Towards the end he issues a special announcement to the audience: "Please refrain from NOT smoking!" and finishes, exhausted, by asking "Can I have a light, please?" answered by a Rasta "yeah, mon!"

This music isn't going to soundtrack any dinner parties - at least, not those worth going to - and if you're not already 75% out the door and bounding, beaming, down the road to your nearest record emporium to pick up a copy of this phenomenal New Pop Party record COMPLETE with bonus Greatest Hits (20 of them! Count 'em! A day per track with 34 tracks? Do you think I'm that mad? And don't answer!) then you deserve all the Sandi Thom yeah-but hit on head with Salvation Army newspaper BE RESPONSIBLE tickings off you deserve. Really, it's the best revenge, and after eleven days of Portishead I think even writers have earned the right to shiny yellow catharsis and yes, I of all people am fully aware that you can't have one without the other but look! The sun's out! All due respect to MC Sauce!!

Tuesday, 20 May 2008


"...You're a writer...You push people around on a nice clean white page. Do this, do that, you say. Speak. Be quiet. Cry."

"And when I look up from the page?"

"You see real people."


(From the 1976 television play Double Dare, written by Dennis Potter)

Of course I have no factual basis on which I can prove that Portishead are saying what I believe they are saying on Third. I can draw a fairly well defined musical line between, say, Third and the Soft Machine's 1970 album Third ("The Moon In June"; Wyatt cheerfully spouting semi-gibberish to ward off the apocalypse) but lyrically I have to fall back on the optic(al illusion?) of the same event being described from eleven different perspectives, or eleven different versions of the same song. Or one 49-minute-long song split into eleven reasonably tidy fragments. Just as, for instance, The Prisoner now more than ever seems to me like seventeen different ways of telling the same story.

There is no great catharsis at the end of "Threads," merely the memory of the eighties television drama of that name which dealt with nuclear holocaust in Sheffield. She has reached the light at the end of the tunnel and it is not the sunshine nor is it an approaching train; it is a queerer light, a greenness she has never quite seen before, and it is slowly terrifying.

And I think of "Orang," the opening track of Herd Of Instinct, a 1994 album released by 'O'Rang, a duo comprising Lee Harris and Paul Webb, late of Talk Talk and impatient with Mark Hollis' work rate, whose music implied a booting viscerality which represented an opposing vision of release to Hollis' calm, refracted prayers; the CD booklet is full of violent, vivid images of cleansing by fire, of suppressed desecration of idols, of escape and ultimate release by means of ritual surrender. "Orang" the song is some ten minutes in duration, moving very steadily from troubled calm to etiolated eruptions; the voices aren't quite clear enough to discern what they are singing but they are clearly striving to get out of this burning place. Placid piano procedurals give way, via the crucial guitar of Bark Psychosis' Graham Sutton, to semi-improvised riots and then back to an even more disturbed peace.

One of the voices on "Orang" belonged to Beth Gibbons and it is to this sense of ritual that she seems to have been returning throughout Third. The precipitating factor is beyond dreadful if I am reading the spaces between the lines correctly - and the above Rashomon comparison may not be too absurd - but something terrible, even evil, has happened to her (even though she blames herself nearly all the way through the record and indeed at one point on "Threads" exclaims "And I can't find no one to blame") and she is struggling to find a way back to truth first and life second, only to find increasingly concave mirrors, closing in on what is left of her shattered beliefs - "I've travelled so far but somehow feel the same."

There is a fatigue here which goes beyond "Feel Like Goin' Home"-type battered wisdom - the line "I am alive when I sleep" immediately makes me think of Bill Fay's "the only time I'm not tired is when I'm asleep" - and there develops a mantra, over the most delicately brilliant Portishead backing track you have ever heard

(the unutterable sublimity of the spaces between guitar and drums, the abandoned port, the ravaged tower, the greatness that this group and only this group could have produced - and it's no coincidence that this is the album's only track with a full, live band)

but then this other Gorgon, half smeared sax (Will Gregory), half detuned supra-amplified guitar chaos (apparently played by Gibbons herself), keeps coming in with its gnarly cricket bat signals as she, worn out but still advancing, keeps insisting "I'm always so unsure" before reaching the nadir of self-sacrifice:





The ego which has closed this world down slaughters itself - for Third does sound like the last rites before the gnarled cricket match that is human existence grinds itself down and burns itself out forever - and at last Beth bursts out, invoking Janis just as she did at the end of "Sour Times" whenever she sang it live, screaming and growling this "DAMNED" and "ONE" before being buried in the harsh ash of the inescapable siren blast, now growing louder, now persisting, and then ceasing its last post

"Where do I go?"

Even The Drift had that last escape hatch of a whisper ("It's OK") but by the end of Third there seems little beyond this last lighthouse than...well, blankness, a huge blanket of blankness, and I cannot honestly rule out the possibility that this blankness is a mirror and that I have spent a fortnight analysing something which is basically blank. However, I honestly doubt that this is the case - otherwise, why come back after eleven years' absence, why say or proclaim anything? The grain of Beth's voice - which has now sounded nothing but exhausted and drained - suggests the truthful, and it is probably the case that her truth does not and should not concern me, but yet she has elected to communicate it, and this record has ended with no hoped-for reason or comedy fifties torch pastiche but a boom which seems to shatter the globe into even smaller pieces with every recurrence.

But Third has the partially unforeseen side-effect of invigorating me as a listener, of engaging me as an active emotional participant, and thus very cleverly denies its own apocalypse. I will end by quoting at length from a radio monologue I heard in the mid-seventies - it has never been repeated and possibly never even broadcast outside Scotland - entitled The Artist In Search Of A City, where the nominal artist, voiced by John Grieve and in search of Glasgow, visits his former partner in art Donald, a man of assumed genius, now an inpatient at the large psychiatric hospital in Lenzie. Donald has just said something very foolish, and Grieve's artist, loving him though he does, erupts with fury and awaits his reaction:

"He didn't move. Hardly seemed to notice. He just said, quietly, 'There are degrees of madness. Mine is maybe not the worst; it only harms myself (pause). If you'd have been where I'd have been, you'd have seen the Fairy Queen!'

(a childhood chant to which Grieve has previously alluded)

"I crept out - hardly said goodbye (then without a pause). The fresh air hit me like a punch. Forget it. Forget the bloody lot. Get back to life, get back to painting!"

The attendant irony need, as ever, not be underlined. But the message is clear ("Message? MESSAGE?? Do you think I'm a bloody postman?") - sometimes rock bottom can be a disguised trampoline. Bouncing back to ground level, as Bim did and everyone reading this knows Beth will, we carry on. Gambon and Suzman depart the hospital together at the end of The Singing Detective, and McGoohan gets back to his "life" and isn't quite sure whether it's an afterlife. We, bloodied, carry on.

Monday, 19 May 2008


“And yet the tales we tell are not of bodies but of hearts and minds and souls”
(Simon Barnes)

If you happened to be on the outskirts of Wimbledon Village on this grey, drizzly Saturday mid-morning just past, you would have glimpsed a nondescript-looking middle-aged man ambling along the dully wet pavement, slightly hunched up against the weather but otherwise unconcerned. I like these wanders around obscure parts of the city, even though this slightly too clean to be true village doesn’t really feel like London , despite the occasional skyline glimpse through the steeply-angled bushes. The village hall is scrubbed perhaps too perfectly, the good-natured haggling in the ironmonger’s a tad too scripted, and the general premise of remoteness is ruined by the occasional streaking car, but overall it’s not an unpleasant place and a nicer walk than, say, any given stretch of the Harrow Road.

I also like these walks because hardly anyone does west or southwest London psychogeography – all the names which matter are circulating around the dwindling anti-paradise of the East, getting the last blood out of each paving stone before the Olympics come and render it into a new emptiness – and the only leylines I’m really seeking are emotional ones. As with that surprisingly lush, hidden part of Tooting – the golf range which runs round the back of what used to be Springfield Hospital – there is the feeling of deliberate shelter from a markedly less lush world outside. Eventually I arrive at a bus stop, and there’s that increasingly rare of sights, a single-decker non-bendy hopper bus, but its doors are open and the driver is patiently waiting for a passenger to finish smoking. The ladies on the bus – for they are nearly all ladies – are chitchatting as Saturday morning housewives are wont to do.

Then, just before he makes to leave, the driver drawls a sort of uber-Cockney reproach to the smoker; something about his having to leave the doors wide open and stop the bus for the smoke to clear. The smoker duly apologises, but it’s all a bit mechanical, as though they were obliged to act out this routine to pacify the invisible Health and Safety Executive. The bus departs and I alight at the markedly less placid concourse of Wimbledon Station itself, with its tacky Centre Court shopping centre façade. A quick skirt past the standard chain nightmare parade of shops, however, and onto the Broadway where quiet once more reigns; we silent throng of charity shop regulars, searching through the dust to find yet more unexpected miracles, the nearly imperceptible nod to other recognised travellers, the quest to reclaim something, heaven only knows what, non-living, unloved and abandoned, knowing full well that if I go out specifically to look for something I will never find it; jettison ambition, go with the slow flow and find whatever happens to be waiting.

Thankfully, however, I am no longer non-living, unloved or abandoned, and I now visit these places for a different reason. I don’t think I will ever forget the old man I once encountered in a charity shop in Streatham, no more than three or four years ago, pawing through and carefully examining cassettes and regularly bursting into tears; he had just lost his wife, the council were giving him grief about his home (I knew all this because he was conversing with the shop assistant) and he was desperately trying to piece together whatever fragments he could encounter to call his life “life” again. I recognised his quest immediately but was wise enough not to intrude with words of attempted empathy that he would at best have regarded as condescending, and at worst as the most grievous of insults.

No, I don’t want to go back to being that sort of person again. These days, whenever I buy things out of charity shops, it’s for things which are likely to brighten up our own home, mostly music and books, but anything else that may catch my eye and would be likely to catch hers, and I enjoy the experience far more than purchasing the latest off-the-peg produce from immense, impersonal department stores or chains. This is an aesthetic and moral rather than an economic response. I can buy any number of identikit lamps from the local Habitat but only one of the curiously coloured lamps I might view cowering behind some Mills and Boon paperbacks. My stubborn wee Clyde tugboat of resistance has yet to exhaust its supply of puff.

No need to go into intense detail about Saturday’s haul – and note that word “haul”’; there is the same end-of-day warm satisfaction that I’m told the huntin’ shootin’ ‘n’ fishin’ crowd derive from a day’s worth of meaningful activity, though without actually taking any animal’s life in doing so – which encompassed everything from an obscure 2000 Paolo Conte album which I hadn’t heard of before (half the record is sung by others, and the songs he sings are largely in English) via the Residents and Peter and Caspar Brötzmann to a Harry Secombe 2CD best-of (The Gold Collection) which I bought because my wife is keen to hear his version of “This Is My Song,” which came second to Pet Clark’s rendition in the early 1967 charts. And why not? The noble Seagoon deserves to be as much a part of 1967, that most expansive of years, as anyone else. And I said I wasn’t going to go into intense detail. Well, there were many others.

I don’t know how much charity shop browsing Portishead have collectively done over the years but I imagine there’s been a lot of it (at the time of Dummy, for instance, Johnnie Ray’s “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” had not been commercially available for some years and was the kind of record you could only really hope to find as a battered old Oxfam seven-inch); a lot of meticulous, agonised piecing together of elements with the purpose of telling a tale (or telling tales, for those who think Portishead are somehow having us on). As with the Shortwave Set, though, they’ve moved on from simply sampling their bargain findings and now furnish soundscapes which are entirely their own, albeit still clearly influenced by whatever they’ve been listening to that week, or month, or year (because it has been eleven years, near enough). But always to tell a tale, or in the case of Third, to spend the record’s 49 or so minutes spinning out a single tale, or the tale of a single soul.

Note how the music on Third has gradually solidified over the course of its journey, that things initially vague and indistinct are now being pulled into sharp focus. It’s the same tale she’s been telling all along – “I can’t deny what I’ve become/I’m just emotionally undone/…I can’t be someone else” – but the music is now visceral, a pummelling, distended 1987 Def Jam beat full of discordant, stumbling cowbells over which electric piano, hurdy gurdy and her Leslie cabinet voice combine for a raga of rage, a melody line which sounds eerily familiar (“The Sun Always Shines On TV” perhaps?) but twisted and kicked back into a bloody 1968 and regularly punctuated by stentorian, nation-sized deep piano plangencies (“I’ve been losing myself/My desire I can’t have/No reason am I for”).

Eventually all is brought to a head by an epileptic, echoplexed, overblowing baritone sax which is a clear homage to 1970-period John Surman but is actually being blown by Will Gregory (who was working on and off with Portishead before Goldfrapp, the duo, came into existence). Yet she continues to struggle her way towards the way out; the song begins with a dead test card monotone TV closedown whine and ends with the same note droned far more softly on a string synthesiser, a bridge towards the place where all of this is leading us, out towards whatever life remains – although when we reach there we should cast an eye back towards another, now nearly forgotten record which actually helped invent all of this, with the active participation of at least one of these souls now under such acrid self-scrutiny.

Friday, 16 May 2008


It only took one Alexis Korner to open the box, this coruscating panoply of hitherto suppressed moods, byways, stratagems and jokes which came out of wanting to try to be rhythm and blues, and then it flowed out of the clubs, some of it straight into rock, other of it towards impure R&B, which in turn took in ska and nascent funk, and then yet more of it into jazz, this extraordinary round robin of musicians, loping from group to collective and back again, always imbueing this week's destination with the newest thing they'd learned from Prince Buster or Joe Zawinul or Archie Shepp, and they circled into wider and wider circumferences of plan and happenstance, into psychedelia and free improvisation and confrontational street theatrics, and some if they weren't careful/too careerist invented hard rock.

And the voices, too, not quite unlearning the torch, the voices of the women, where best to place their emotional suitcases in a terminal stretching from Bessie Smith to Mary Weiss, from Vera Lynn to Dusty? Those suburban voices who imbibed whatever plankton of grit might have been blown over the Atlantic, to refine or coarsen it, to enlarge or microshrink it, thus tremulous Faithfull to righteously howling Driscoll and then Miles, via Hendrix, got a toehold on this ever increasing circle and then so did Carla Bley and suddenly the loop was feeding back across to America and now everything was interactively possible...

So a blankly melancholic 3/4 one note guitar line over which she breathes memories of "Tennesse Waltz," the lamp flickering ever less frequently; inhaled closets of unforgettable wines, the feeling alive, "the wisdom that took me away from the bed," bouquets of glory and scents of forgiveness, the "she" who speaks of freedom ("'the way in' she said")...

The chimera collapses and we are in Henry Cow's 1973 with a piercingly calm, processed one note 'cello sample (Georgie Born trapped in a jam jar) and she lights up the mirror to mutual disgust: "Small, tasteless and flawed," and then, more with pity than contempt, "hoping to see, blinded like me - you tried to understand, but you're just a man, hoping to score - just like me." The veil of a Julie Covington awaits on the other side of the tanned door.

The lost thrill, the ceaseless attempts to pretend, the calamitous gulf between the him of then and whatever he is now, all crawling down to a blunted cigarette incapable of eating any moon; and so, into a mechanical 1969 R&B rapidly blasted apart by her Berberian antitonal choirs - the dissonances encapsulating her inability to land - and there is an Auger organ and a grumbling guitar; the organ doesn't solo as such but merely proceeds into intently intense discordant clusters, the machine winding down to explode.

Back, briefly, to a pastoral Twiggy 1976 of yieldless yearning - if only that 'cello would (be) pipe(d) down - before the ravaging combo thrust hurls itself back into the damaging picture; the guitar becoming increasingly a groaning, locked joint of malaligned ligaments mutually and frantically grinding each other down into abhorrent dust and after six and a half minutes the operator has no option save to turn off the switch. The hidden history of a noticeably green rock - algae, or did we let it grow into plutonium?

Thursday, 15 May 2008


"Stars open among the lilies.
Are you not blinded by such expressionless sirens?
This is the silence of astounded souls."
(SP, from "Crossing The Water," composed 4 April 1962)

...blind, blind, blind, blind, blind...

There have been other machine guns. But the Brotzmann one wasn't just about May '68 and turning the gaff over to the beach; its original sleevenotes refer explicitly to the '68 Germany of unresolved, craterised bombsites, of concentration camp museums, of a consequent generation saddled to the point of spinal collapse with guilt. The pressing siren of need to create something new out of the elements of destruction.

The Hendrix one, a year later, not just about 'Nam, but looking askance and aghast at what might happen to those of his boys who survive and what kind of society they'll be coming back to and isn't this the preparatory ruination which will haunt that generation of unearned consequence?

Narrowing down, down, ever down into the era of Me (not my Me, you understand) when all the beacons have had their blaze extinguished or compromised - and is there any useful difference in the end? - to an age where one is forced to look through oneself rather than look after others because others will always betray you at either end...

...but also back to a ghost older than her great grandmother...

"I saw a saviour

a saviour come my way

I thought I'd see it

at the cold light of day

but now I realise that I’m

Only for me"

...a working woman's Bristol Channel blues...

...and yet also as young as any daughter would be...

Consider the video to Britney Spears' 2004 number one single "Everytime," also the last formal track on its parent album In The Zone (zone nature unspecified), wherein her prayer is contorted into the smallest and reddest possible corner - the bathtub, the blood - but still suggests escape; a child, angel as child, ANGEL OF ASHES...

(always coming back to HIM, too...)

...which on the album sounds the least reversible ending since Closer but she doesn't quite die even as her radar detaches itself from her bodily grief and rises to meet the absolute.

Is her grief, therefore, necessarily any the lesser in validity than those of others?

And can she still see the ANSWER?

"If only I could see

You turn myself to me

and recognise the poison in my heart

There is no other place

No one else I face

The remedy, it will agree with how I feel"

"Here in my reflecting...

What more can I say?"

She knows the answer is in front of her but cannot quite grasp it and thus these tortuously huge barriers of defence; a guillotined "Blue Monday," humid hammers of call and response between two drum patterns which might once have been people - the buried voice which emerges when drum pattern 1 (hammer on snare anvil) doubles up in strength halfway through (GET ME OUT OF HERE!) though the scan of titular drum pattern 2 remains unrelenting...

A confessional tango, a ballad which Veloso or Gilberto could have written before life and loss did things to it (thus marvel all the more at the former's retained composure as all else falls down around them).

Confessional -

"For I am guilty for the voice that I obey

Too scared to sacrifice a choice

Chosen for me."


ESCALATED HILLS of trombones as sirens, basses shifting out of synch and tone, bombarding cascades of miniscule hailstones bouncing off or maybe radiating through the inadequate hood of cover DO YOU REALLY WANT TO STAY HERE


"And I could say nothing because I was as guilty as they were."

(Mingus, after Pastor Niemoller)


Scratches of misrecorded memory

And then RESTART

But your wings have been SAVED

A warm synthesiser enters - the tone of the melody remains relatively harsh in its metallic melancholy, but it is doing its ardent best to clear the smoke from the victim's eyes to look, to see


The smoke clears.

The choice is mine.

Out of the elements of destruction, salvation.

End of world deferred until further notice.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008


"It is often the case with really important people. Anonymity is the best disguise."

(The as yet unmasked D to Patrick McGoohan's 6 in The Prisoner, episode 3: "A, B & C")

Always seen as the least conspicuous song on the album, and sometimes the most irritating of interludes, but it always turns out to be the glue which holds the rest of the record together. So it was with "Within You, Without You," and with "Songbird," the only song on Rumours to ask for unity, and with "Deep Water." It lasts no more than 85 seconds, is largely for voice and hesitant single-string banjo with discreet harmony accompaniment for the Somerfield Workers' Choir and is the simplest and seemingly most peaceful of these songs.

But listen to her - she is almost completely drowned, scarcely able to croak a note, at her last ebb, holding onto life as the rest of the world tries to displace her, shattered, defeated. Or at least she would be, except even with what sounds like her last breath she vows that she will weather the storm, that even if this hostile river, or sea, or bathtub, flows against her will it may yet "somehow turn me around.""No matter how far I drift," she lullabies herself to her senses, "Deep waters won't scare me tonight."
She's down, but she's capable of anything.
We attempt to damage the tissue at our peril.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008


"...the dissolution of his past, the final renunciation of that hated haunting - memory - was complete. Soon, withdrawing slowly and irrevocably into his old shadow, he would wave away the rest of life as well."
(Nick Tosches, Dino, chapter XIV: "A Thief At The Grave Of Desire")

Always coming back to him...

...and yes let's get the Beckett in the mud out of the way, noting that Jack Bruce gave one of the performances of his career portraying the man who isn't allowed to drag himself out of the quicksand in Michael Mantler's Beckett adaptation No Answer, but most of us carry on anyway out of fear, hope, impatience and curiosity, not in that order...

...and perhaps "We Carry On" are those gaily coloured Cadbury's trucks running into the mud, revving themselves up at varying and non-concomitant speeds; the thrust is fast but directionless...a bustling tattoo of percussion but guitars moving and repeating patterns at a slightly slower speed and a bass which doesn't appear to be connecting to anything else at all...

...the voice, far more West Country than she usually lets slip, the taste of life choking on her mind, and she goes on and on "but underneath my mind and on and on I tell myself is this I can't disguise" and yet she is but another flavour, another crossword orchestration in the disturbing pattern of this song..."oh can't you see?" (so much of this album seems to be about wilful blindness)..."Holding onto my heart/I bleed the taste of life"...

...the pace in her mind always too fast, she can't cope, but something continues to propel her on...fear of recividist memory?...and there is the approach to a middle eight or a bridge just before the bridge collapses (since the bass falls apart, out of time, out of pitch, out of comprehension almost)...hoopla, stick at 12 or risk 22?...

...and nothing here is "atonal" as such or in itself but still every ingredients piles on, increases the burden, this cross of compromise she was told to bear, and eventually there is a terrible metallism, guitars screaming in neat triples in a buried line of ascension...

...and this can ONLY be in the light of Joy Division, since this is what "We Carry On" sounds like more than anything, over its deliberately grinding six minutes and 25 seconds, accelerating, hurtling but not necessarily travelling...that depressed dissonance I remember so well from early '81...if one thinks of JD as depicting downtrodden, emptily spacious Manchester, then here we have a half-built Bristol flyover...a city I have never had the occasion to visit (even when I used to order records by post from the long defunct Revolver) and only know from its salient string of music from Keith Tippett to Massive Attack and what Petit made it look like in Radio On but there the abandoned cardboard box and here the stopped/clogged corrugated fenced-off fence

And even here I notice not just the gradual demystification and decontentisation of the CD booklet but a deliberate holding cheery thanks to loved ones or bandmates or other mates to be found here; merely an intentionally blurred picture of the three on the rear tray and a desolate in negative centrespread of the "Portishead Radio Station"...attenuated towers, unmanned Nissen huts, life fled, are we receiving you?

"I bleed. No place is safe."

The corners of the protected window turn yellow with gathering daylight. The options remain open. Grind down the view or break the hell out. What's that blue breeze?

Monday, 12 May 2008


“’Well,’ she said, ‘meantime for the present we will let it be; for I must look at this new country that we are passing through. See how the river has changed character again: it is broad now, and the reaches are long and very slow-running. And look, there is a ferry!’”

(William Morris, News From Nowhere, chapter XXVIII, “The Little River”)

The allegory with age need not be underlined, but perhaps the impossibility of “going home” on a physical basis could do with some italicisation. From recent and not so recent experience this is impossible; streets I could pick out blindfolded yet I pass through them completely at sea, workplaces once so familiar and now baffling and confusing in their renewed newness. The basic truth that it’s no longer 1994 can be tough to assimilate, as is, for better or worse, the melancholy or euphoric fact that I am no longer quite the person I was fourteen, or even four, years ago. My eyes glaze through my old writing with something mixing astonishment and mystery – did I really feel that way about such a record, or such a person, at that time? Is this ammunition against the supposed immortality of writing about anything at all?

Portishead know that it’s no longer 1994 either. See how tantalisingly and briefly “Plastic” rests in the throne of their own making; that brittle yet tender snap, that click, which a thousand imitators could never get right, the spatiality between guitar and percussion, the settlement of everything and everyone not explicitly suggested. And yet – and what about Benjamin’s future still lying in plastics? – they shake and if necessary slap the listener awake and alert; those drums which keep rolling back on themselves like an ill-tethered piano in a budget removal van, collapsing bridges of deception, falling into atonal pits of guitar and sabretoothed snarling snags of synth (did you expect it to be easy? Listening?) and even when old dummies are recalled there are these napalm swoops of helicopter propellers which obviate clarity, render plaintiveness furtive.

“I wonder why I don’t know what you see?”

Life is no longer what it was; she might be referring to old wounds by singing “On your stage/A show that you create all by yourself/I am nowhere…you never noticed,” but is calmly separating the shards of shattered hope from her more sensitive membranes while eternally aware of the invisible fence of time which has intruded upon what she once might have recognised as life: “I could try/But don’t know what you hear/’Cos in my heart/You were so clear.”

The quiescent rage flourishes back inwards – “It’s just a thought – I’ve said enough.” But then the defence barrier quivers: “Don’t you know life turns me? Always wants me?” she pronounces with decided emphasis. “I can hardly pray” she claims, but knows that going home means people, and most of the time it necessitates the direct and close involvement of people I wouldn’t have known four, or fourteen, years ago; keep the lifelong connections and don’t neglect them, but be prepared to hear and see new things, new lives, and embrace them when you recognise the signs – and you do, always you do – and suddenly the sunken lamppost glow reveals itself as the first stirrings of sunrise but the purpose of Third is to fight its way through the mist.

Friday, 9 May 2008


The trouble with hauntology, if you'll pardon the contradiction, is that it doesn't show much evidence of life. Although it is always tempting for the sake of an easy life to plant a flag in hauntologist's reconstituted muxlife of 1971 and have Arthur Machen's thoughts substitute for any of their own, revisiting can only be undertaken for active reasons to do with whatever now one is living through. What hurts so much about 2008 that one has to filter life back to a misleadingly sunny and probably second-hand history? Goldfrapp have been very clever with Seventh Tree but I believe also righteous; fuzzed vowels, smacked consonants, sneakily repainted buses of artfully harder candy, gazing back through the tint of rushing rose only to demand: why not live and breathe now, why cling to that A&E of a nostalgia?

"The Rip" is the second most violent song title on Third and the second most peaceful song; it's been played on radio as the record's "accessible" track. "Strange Little Girl" tenor synthesiser waves lap across a bathyscope of something more valuable than bathos as she sings of white horses to take her away...but from what? "Scented and torn," "I take on myself," "Disappointed and sore," "I have bled" far away as possible as Van could get from Madame George, if she can help it/herself, by the sound of her.

As the compressed photostats of drums enter to provide a securer pathway to ride - this Kid B knows what spirits she is summoning - I think not of dubbed European children's TV serials of the sixties but of a track seldom acknowledged in any form; "King Meadowlands," produced by Vitalic and sung by Linda Lamb some five years ago, wherein she dreams of riding her childhood pony to flee "the bigger boys" and the necessity to say "please" over a still unparallelled (ef)fusion of Sixties brass loop, blacksmith's chanting iron and electroclash drift.

This "Rip" (but hasn't the title told you enough already?) is more subdued because its singer has to be; it canters placidly above the water but deep down ("the tenderness I feel will send the dark underneath") it is fleeing at marathon runner pace as bassoon subtly doubles up the bass line, forcing the continuation of breath, the non-cessation of movement. Whether she follows is yet to be seen but she is using the experiences of near or previous death to make sure that life continues to matter and that she has at least a running chance of getting to be happiness.

Thursday, 8 May 2008


"Looking out, I want a reason to repair."

"You're not being honest! You are on the side of the people - aren't you?"

Looking through K-Punk's characteristically thoughtful post on Gordon Brown, in tandem with recent re-viewing of the crucial "Free For All" episode of The Prisoner - the first to be written and directed by McGoohan himself - it suddenly became perfectly clear; Brown's supposed Aspergic tendencies, his perceived inability to sympathise, let alone empathise, with his people, the feeling, both intrinsic and extrinsic, of a power unearned...

"'Cos I don't know what I've done to deserve you,
And I don't know what I'd do without you" what Number 6 would have ended up becoming if he'd really been allowed to win the Village election and continue as Number 2. Rather than yet another psychological trick to hammer him further into his place, suppose that Eric Portman's outgoing chief - and if you know Portman as the glue-pourer of suspicious allegiances in Powell and Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale his surface benignness is even more terrifying - lets McGoohan have his way, allows him to run the Village as he would have planned to do. Notice how at the moment of victory, Portman brings McGoohan out to meet the voting throng, allegedly triumphant, raises his arm to a reaction of total, static silence. The people gape at him as though he is on his way to the gallows - and he is being slowly nudged along that route - or, perhaps more pointedly (as not enough people are yet doing after last weekend) realising the terrible mistake that they've just made.

For McGoohan's Number 6 has already been proved as a man uncomfortable in social situations, happier in books or solitary travel than having to speak to the person three feet away from him in the same room. Given that he has already been drugged to spout cliche and nothing but throughout the brief election campaign one would expect his pitching to be wooden, but in or out of control he seems a curiously charmless leader, palpably ill at ease in any surrounding involving anyone else and his pledges can hardly be credited ("Apply to me and it will be easier and better!" What will? The torture?).

But let's just suppose that Portman and the fake Eastern European (or is it Esperanto?) maid leave McGoohan be; he's not persuading anyone. His harsh, stuck needle bark of "You are free to go!" wouldn't convince even the smallest mouse skulking at the back of the Cat and Mouse nightclub to venture out. He will continue, coolly frustrated at his inability to change anything that matters, and eventually step down to allow a sighing Number 58 to get on with the real job in hand. This is someone who doesn't want to govern - think of the extended psycho-building block interview with George Benson's interrogator where the latter seems genuinely concerned and anxious about what he correctly perceives as solipsism ("You mustn't think of yourself all the time - you have a responsibility!" he says, more in pity than sinisterly).

Of course, all these indicators are building blocks in themselves and McGoohan will still have thirteen episodes left to figure out how to put them together in such a way that reveals the true answer. Or, if he's Gordon Brown, two years; a Bartleby Prime Minister, someone who would be much more at home in the Mitchell Library, dutifully researching and assembling data, history and beliefs, than speaking...

...but then, is it his fault that Gaitskell and Attlee and even Thatcher were not required to make the monkey faces required to win over the 21st century electorate, in the same way that The X-Factor is not a talent contest and that The Apprentice is not a practical business training tool but an opportunity for a deliberately prohibited public to select futures on the grounds of how well the contestants can make those faces, the ones they know from TV, the ones they never see outside the house, the hooks to which they can hang on, like frozen gangsters? Is anonymity, in the end, the best disguise for really important people?

So to "Nylon Smile" and its detuned Ze-era Tropicalia with Derek Bailey scrapes and seagull squawks of guitar, its concerned, dark chordal cloisters, and she is singing about her wish to be able to laugh at what "you" have just said but she cannot find a smile and so looks out, craving to be "someone I wanna be," probing for "a reason to be there," but finally can see neither good nor bad on any horizon, and concludes, the barrel of consensual indifference aimed at her temple, "I never had the chance to explain exactly what I meant."

"You needn't worry. There will be no remembrances."

Wednesday, 7 May 2008


"If rock 'n' roll is just entertaining, then it's only using ten per cent of its potential"
(Miami Steve van Zandt, quoted in the NME, week ending 7 December 1985)

Standing on the edge of a broken sky indeed, but still I feel the need to say that something needs to be done about BBC music radio. Oh, I know there are far greater demons facing off against us in 2008 than to have to worry about a crappy public radio service - but maybe the latter helps to feed the former. Whereas twenty or thirty years ago Radio 1 was more or less what Radio 2 is now - stiffly naff, acknowledging the new with the barest and most grudging of nudges - it has developed into a furiously anxious champion of newness, all newness, whatever its form or underlying quality. To tell the truth the only time I ever bother to listen to the station in depth is when the venerable Westwood is on, and generally it is to listen to Westwood first with the music an increasingly distant second. Otherwise, if you can negotiate the endless jingles, plugs and shouting, there seems little underlying change; a nauseatingly matey, enclosed world where every new act, every new record, is de facto great and nothing matters in the irritating world outside - and of course the newness is purely cosmetic, since in the case of genuine new music Radio 1 has generally run as far away from it as it can possibly manage; there is now no hope of a renegade John Peel type broaching the moat.

Meanwhile, Radio 2 continues to cosset its conservative - small or capital C, take your pick - audience, the one which no longer has the time or energy it might have had in 1978 or 1982; and welcome the sanitised new muzak vision of contented, who-could-disagree canons of rock and pop divorced from the energies, politics and sex which gave this music life in the first place; finally you get your Pistols, your Clash, your Joy Division even, neatly and contented wrapped up in a handy package for disbelieving, shaking heads, many of which wonder what the fuss was in the first place, taking their due place beside Phil and Rod and Mick in the unending catacombs of rock-as-nu-MoR tapestries, a sanitised landscape where the follies and idiosyncracies of the past can be safely buried or smuggled into 6Music and where - in total contrast to Peel, whose show was once simulcast on Radios 1 and 2 - any supposedly "difficult" music is flagged up from a distance of 50 miles as though In Rainbows were a set of contraflow-inducing roadworks, the overseers terrified that their listeners will switch over to Virgin or Heart at the merest hint of discordance or independence of thought - whereas Peel had the gift to leave things there for the audience to take as they might.

Thus the recent spectre of Mark Radcliffe fearfully trying to reassure his village-owning followers that Portishead are normal types, really, that they are not as "weird" as their music might suggest, i.e. please don't switch off and turn to Michael Buble four times an hour. Thus the increasingly bathetic babble which in turn is squeezing actual music into a tighter schedule, early fadeouts now commonplace, all the better to allow witless, punchline-free "banter" or a plug for X's new book or Y's new film...and we can forget what the music they are playing once meant, or could still mean.

But Portishead haven't forgotten, and surely the thoroughly deserved commercial success of Third - straight in at number two first week, not that far behind Madonna - has belied the crass demographic assumption that people will flee from "new" music unless it trots up and licks their hands like a cheery spaniel (see the Zutons, Guillemots, Kooks ad terminum).

And their memories remain vivid and hurt. "Hunter" refers back uneasily to the semi-comfy Portishead that we previously assumed we knew with its patient brushes, Frankie Laine guitar ripples and Dammers-via-Satie piano - but its opening transition from a bell tree absconded from Montague Terrace (and never as blue) into a thudding heartbeat immediately positions us away from ease. It's still after the war, and she is still crying, trying to retain a grip on what she might previously have known as the world ("A new evidence is what we require in this world").

There are two major interruptions to the song; first, the air raid guitar returns, now lower and more snarling, as she stands at the edge of her broken sky, and second, a 1970 computer data bank burble (sometimes accentuated by the keening guitar, sometimes bustled into the future by Barrow's suddenly busy snare runs) via Dazzle Ships, but always coming back to this purple heartbreak, this grey grief:

"And if I should fall, would you hold me? Would you pass me by?"

This is not to say that Radio 2 still cannot divulge unheralded revelations; on his show last night, Desmond Carrington played a Vera Lynn recording I'd never heard before, from the early seventies, a modified version of the Tom Paxton song "Whose Garden Was This?," and its pitiless vision of a post-nuclear wasteland wherein the survivor struggles to come to terms with the absence of the green meadows and the blue rivers, or, as the song goes on to imply, can't remember their existence in the first place ("Can you SWEAR they were there?") sounds all the more startling coming from the Voice of World War II - her final, angry "then why is this forest EMPTY?" disappears into a terrible echo.

And it fits with eerie perfection into "Hunter"'s picture of stumbling victims:

"So confused - my thoughts are taken over,
Unwanted horizons face me instead - won't let go."

Because that's what it comes down to, in any end; you can't tear down structures or beliefs and gleefully display fragments of the wreckage in pretence that they still exist, and trying to pretend prevents those of us who are determined not to let go of what we remember (rather than clinging to it) to present a truer picture. Most things in the world right now are a very long way indeed from great or super, but as there is comfort so must there be revelation (because it makes the comfort greater) and so seemingly unpleasant truths have to be faced and I have to emphasise that "seemingly" because if we can't get past that "seemingly" like Jane Eyre or Psyche managed and get close enough to witness the hopeful beauty within then we have truly had it.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008


"She saw a dim spot of artificial red moving round the shoulder of the rise. It disappeared on the other side."
(Thomas Hardy, Far From The Madding Crowd, chapter XXVIII: "The Hollow amid the Ferns")

There is now a new blue in the air, which will eventually make it harder to breathe; I woke up in Tory London on this Bank Holiday weekend and perhaps I should have written about the Pretenders song "My City Was Gone" but there are more pressing songs to sing. I still find it almost impossible to believe that this city which I thought I knew would elect a virtual fascist to run them for the purposes of "entertainment" and making "a change," in the same way that Pinochet was a change from Allende but I hear the braying boasts in pubs and cafes around me, impossible to escape in this heat, the Horst Wessel-esque shouts of "WE WON!" But how?

We can blame the suburbs, blame the Evening Standard, blame Livingstone for not remaining an independent - but then the latter is like permitting Labour to not be a socialist or even a particularly left-wing party. That someone deploying the same vocabulary and outlook, exactly four decades after another maverick Tory's nonsense about "rivers of blood," doesn't only demonstrate (again) that people who watch history but will not learn from it will repeat its mistakes, but also the rotten bark of the New Labour tree which, in the end, is to blame for Johnson's triumph. Even Thatcher at her least merciful drew the line at doubling the taxes of the poor while leaving billionaire oligarchs free of any tax burden in order to propagate the illusion that Britain is still a leading world power, as opposed to a duller Dubai, a glorified tax haven/arms dump/Third World nation with paranoid delusions of grandeur, whichever way people want it to lead.

And I'm afraid we must also blame ourselves; the supposedly active public ultimately happy to let things work themselves out, even though we should have been taught that they never do, secure in protecting our personal pleasures and whims even though humanity is likely to become extinct by dubious virtue of its unshakeable and finally fatal fetish towards the internal combustion engine, watching others freeze or starve to death because their utility bills have been increased beyond bearability in order to subsidise the lifestyles of anonymous international shareholders who employ others to look at their bank accounts.

Anywhere else...a revolution. And I find painfully little reflection of this daily diminution of the world in contemporary music, or writers' reactions to music. As in politics, the old order has re-established itself, the myth of meritocracy demolished to reveal the same old cracked gargoyle of a system where, after all, how far you get in life depends upon who your parents are, which school or university you went to, whom you got or were persuaded to know; whether X-Factor or Brit School, the aim is to reinstate a permanent 1953 where everyone knows their place on pain of something worse than death (the real consuming poison in society today is not the fear of death, but fear of the bailiffs). Our theoretical response has proved a failure, whether hauntologists burying their necks in a misremembered childhood to avoid having to deal with now and today, or poptimists who felt that fun would quench everything, even though all unquestioned or unsubstantiated "fun" did in the end was fuel the fiires of the revenge of the Right (voting for Boris because he might bring "fun" back to London, Busted and their fellow Conservative youth movements now standing as a ghastly prelude to this grim acceptance of pushing London, and eventually Britain, back to spank them for even thinking that the last half century happened). We thought - I see now mistakenly, and grievously so - that people would be wise enough to see through the Child Catcher facade of New Conservatism and we could proceed with scintillating fan fictions and let boring old politics take care of itself, only to find that "boring old politics" is now likely to have swept away the futures of most of us.

Not in whose name?

And into this sit down and be counted nightmare scenario, enter, after a decade's gardening leave, Portishead.

A Brazilian Portuguese radio voice (after Zeca?), explaining "the rule of three" (Third is the album, in both studio number and title), and warning of "this lesson you must learn - you only get what you deserve" as nightclub piano and brushes tune up in the background, all suddenly swept away by nuclear raid siren guitar, thunderous cardboard box beats and miscellaneous noises emanating from a zoo now insane, sepulchral Moog bass digging a country of graves, guitar wildly weaving and bleeping from octave to octave, and is that a cowbell or a ticking death clock? An impatiently urgent tempo, with the same cold grandeur of "Rawhide" or "Cossacks Are...," apocalyptic stallions heralding the end over the plainer plains, a far-blown undertow of neurotic strings which could have come straight from Septober Energy.

She enters at 2:10:

"Tempted in our minds,
Tormented inside life,
Wounded and afraid inside my head,
Falling through changes."

And nothing else in 2008 abruptly sounds as urgent, as beaten. "Did you know when you lost?...Do you know what I wanted?" Is she singing to anyone? Her voice is suppressing hysteria like a finger in the least holy of dams; an expectation of destructive flood, "empty in our hearts, crying out in silence." The requiem already sounding for the last battle where the good guys lost.

Crowd noises, separated by an unfunny plex of unbreakable glass.

Two 'cellos, trying to lend a dying air of authority and tenderness to this hammering song which nails a new soul with every second, the gas, the screams, the final realisation of the horrible mistake that we have made, the impossibility of reversibility, a rush for the dividing line of time which makes Madonna and Justin's four minutes even more absurd and hypocritical (since they're only thinking of saving their world) and at 4:59 the thing is cut off entirely, the coil snapped, five minutes and they were almost there and it wasn't enough but then a birth well could

Friday, 2 May 2008

HAPPY MONDAYS: Twenty Four Hour Party People

In times of extreme desperation, and particularly at times when Tory Britain looms on the horizon like a half-expected iceberg, shouting nonsense very loudly at whatever deems itself to be authority is sometimes great defence and attack at the same time. Thus Ryder's anti-incantation, doing its best to avoid Thatcher's Britain, reigns as radiantly as it did 21 years ago, as well as being one of that rare-ish breed of album title tracks which do not actually appear on their parent albums.

Sounding like Peter Kay locked overnight in a Bolton basement with the Teardrop Explodes - all Lost In Space synths and boldly nervous, jittery quarter-funk guitars - and half a Sherbert Fountain for company, Ryder immediately drawls an accusatory mirror image at Middle England, a raygun from the North West: "How old are you? Are you old en-UFF? Should you beeeeeee-in-heeeeere watching THAT?!"

The song is also an early nod and welcome to Acieed culture, even if we were still some 18 months away from the final bonding (the Vince Clarke remix of "W.F.L.") - the Mondays bouncing on concrete trampolines but so far gone they believe themselves to be surfing rainbows: "You can't be beaten! So why don't you join in?," Shaun always there to welcome us. Demanding an end to forced abstinence, Ryder exclaims with some element of compassion "I can see you through the door - you've been chewing on bread and water/And there's a GRUDGE on you you know you not ought to have!" "Put that mother to bed," he commands as the party in their heads begins to dance of its own accord.

After one final bid for freedom - "Press the pause on the self-destruct!" - the music booms into a strange but logical Afrobeat section ("WHITE OUT!") before hurtling back to the descending echoes of increasing ecstasy. "1-2-3-4-5-6-7-365-all-the-time!" Ryder chants as the producer (one Dave Young) proceeds gradually to bury him in echo and reverb. Joyful, messy, ardent and stalwart, this should have been a number one but in a 1987 of Curiosity Hates Bruce Willis such an event was still some years forthcoming. It still sounds, especially today, like a garishly demonstrative dance of protest and pride at an encroaching nullity which can neither reach nor subdue them.