28.7.15

White Noise

No, not the David Vorhaus LP beloved of hauntological music fans.

Last month I was freelancing out of a particularly noisy office. People were having loud meetings all around me and I simply couldn't concentrate. So I loaded up some aeroplane noise on Spotify and pumped up the volume on my earbuds.

It was only fifteen minutes later when someone grabbed me by the shoulder. Looking up I noticed the entire company was staring at me. My phone had been ringing for, like, an age. Why didn't I answer it? What kind of freak was I?

When one is trying to trying to work intensely music can be distracting. White Noise on the other hand gradually recedes from one's attention but still blocks out the racket. I started to really enjoy listening to it.

In an old essay I wrote, called "Ur-Gerausch", which is in The Big Book of Woe,  I remembered writing about the massive rushing sound of the universe which we can no longer hear. Music is, amongst many things, a "making audible" of sound. The musician makes sound "solid". White Noise therefore might be the opposite of music as it is sound which becomes inaudible.

On holiday the temperature reached 40 celsius. The fan in our room span heavily all night. Generating White Noise. I found I was sleeping incredibly deeply and was waking refreshed. It turns out White Noise is widely used as a sleep aid, something I was entirely unaware of.

I bought one of these fascinating Sound Conditoners - a dohm made by the company Marpac. First created in 1962 by an eccentric engineer called Jim Buckwalter. Jim cut holes in the base of dog bowl and within it fitted a small fan blade attached to a turntable motor. The dohm makes a pleasant whooshing sound which plays through the night. Kinda reminds me of the Buddha box. Has echoes of Raymond Scott. Is used by babies and the sufferers of tinnitus too.


I discovered this inspired app: "White Noise Generator" by TMSOFT. The app store is chockablock with white noise apps. A search brings up 650 results. However this app is unique in its purity and conceptual genius. It is, to quote the blurb, "the ONLY White Noise Generator that uses mathematical sound algorithms to generate any color noise directly on the device." As far as I can ascertain this is entirely correct. Every other app simply loops slugs of wav. Usually their sounds are despoiled with tibetan bells or birdsong too. "White Noise Generator" is more like a wacky synthesiser; you can actually sculpt noise to your own liking.


TMSOFT, who also produce a raft of other dodgier White Noise apps (hey, gotta pay dem bills!) go on to explain: "Our algorithms were designed by an auditory neuroscientist from John Hopkins University." Coo. I know you're going to dig this. Genuinely something special and at 79p an absolutely essential purchase.

Spotted




Truly amazing Chico Buarque LP spotted today outside the Terence Higgins Trust charity shop in Walker's Court. Nestled on the top of a pile of interesting LPs. Scratched to pieces, sadly. That's one brilliant Brazilian elpee.

Walker's Court surprisingly sanitised now. It always used to be nice and sleazy. The western side of the bottom of Berwick Street has been completely shut down now too. Great memories of Daddy Kool, Ambient Soho, the Soho M&V and Sister Ray.

11.7.15

The Ascent of Man


I was talking with a friend recently who was quietly bemoaning the state of current music. New music doesn't electrify him the way old music does and he keeps finding himself being drawn into the allure of the past. Reluctantly I had to agree with him. Although there are a few things I find myself enthusiastic about, the count is down. I struggle, for instance, to pull together an end of year chart.

It's a familiar conversation amongst elders, but also one I had recently with my children when I was discussing how they would feel about Youtube and their Xbox thirty years hence. Whilst generally this discussion is dominated by ideas about content, how X artist of the past was superior to Y artist of the present; to my mind the key question, the location of the fetish if you like, is first and foremost the format.

To take myself as an example: I started following music in the early eighties. I would class myself as Homo Albumus. My fetish was formed very quickly and strongly just before the birth of the CD. I had a couple of years to imprint; like the young duckling imprints on the first creature it esteems to be its parent. My peers generally came to music a little later and were swept up with the birth of the CD. They became Homo Digitalis. Certainly there are crossovers between these groups, but more in the way that the Neanderthal would co-exist with Homo Sapiens.

To be too hard and fast insisting on format as the predicator would be misleading. It might be the clearest classification but generally people look past it to the content itself. The single most important idea behind this concept is that music, or musical culture, does not have some eternal quality. It is particular to its cohort. We feel baffled or even ashamed that we can not connect to the music of the past. We dress up this inevitable generational disconnection in formalities (the mausoleum of Classical music culture), as if the staging of a ritual seriousness will help us feel the charge where none remains for us. Or we intellectually post-rationalise the music of the past in an attempt to, sometimes successfully, reimagine the spark our forefather's felt.

Some music fares better in reaching out to other generations for longer. I still "feel" Bach's "Brandenburg Concerto" for instance. But watching a good TV programme last night, the "Rock'n'Roll America" series on iPlayer, was a salutary reminder of not the diminishing power of music, but how that power is particular to each generation. As breathlessly descriptive as the voiceover was, and as charismatic and enthused as the elderly rockers were, I simply could not connect to most of the music. There were highlights. There is a flicker of feeling I get from Little Richard's "Lucille", more powerfully too from from The Flamingoes "I Only Have Eyes For You" and always something for The Everley Brothers. But that shouldn't be an article of shame.

It will come as a shock to Homo Youtubus, whose fetish objects are phones and tablets as opposed to CDs and Records, to find in twenty years time that there is a diminishment in what appeals to them. Their tastes too will be superseded by the following generation's. Geneva Jacuzzi's excellent videos foreground, perhaps because the music itself isn't so strong, that Youtube has fixed the video itself at the centre. We've had music television since 1981 but it is only now, amidst the death the own-able format (Homo Digitalis persisting briefly as an mp3 consumer), that the balance has tipped. Previously video was always ancillary to music. Some of this shift can be dated back to Madonna and her radical reimagining of the pop star as bankable media icon; where the true currency became not the music but the star's ability to command a fee in the manner of the Hollywood system.

Rather than rail at the present and its shortcomings therefore we should, while retaining our curiosity about the new, embrace our own mortality. As many do quite innocently, we should enjoy what Mark Fisher memorably called our "sad passions", the slightly fruitless stockpiling of things which are particular to our own experience. For you're a long time dead.

7.7.15

10 More Lost Rock Records from the 1970s

People keep buying my Lost 100 records thing. Sure, it's more like a dribble these days, but it pays for a few LPs. I thought I'd make a little addendum of rock albums I have stumbled upon in the past few years since I published it.

Having fondled my way through the darker crevices of that decade I have found these are albums which have "stood out". Chiefly, though all good recordings, these are records that I believe have some significance in the discourse surrounding seventies rock. That pertains to how records were received critically, how certain records ended up gaining further significance and where players slotted in significantly with their peers. So for example, a record might have received a rave review by a "classic-era" journalist, it might have had a disproportionate influence to its low sales or the musicians might have gone on to record culturally significant things. And of course there are other criteria. That was something I didn't really emphasise in the book, probably owing to being too close to the coalface.


Michael Chapman: Fully Qualified Survivor (Harvest 1970)

If you like those spaced-out, melancholy, drunken singer-writer albums by Roy Harper and Bill Fay, then you'll love this. Not really folky, thank goodness. The folkier those LPs get the worse. In fact, come to think of it, what's folky about Nick Drake and John Martyn? Nothing. Oh, and some great "licks" by Mick "Future Spider" Ronson.


Rick Derringer: All American Boy (Blue Sky 1973)

Simon hipped me to this. When I was out in Los Angeles three years ago I picked up a copy in Long Beach. It's a nifty, slightly anglophile power-pop LP. Great, snappy production - they spent some cash on it because they thought Derringer would make it. He didn't - the blame for which was attached to the overly-retouched artwork! If you read the fine print you find that "Hold" was written by Rickster and a young Patti Smith.


Michael Hurley and The Unholy Modal Rounders: Have Moicy (Rounder 1976)

A Robert Christgau favourite. He says (with concision): "The greatest folk album of the rock era". Originally spinning out from the Grenwich Village jugband scene that spawned the The Fugs. This is tinged with country, deceptively well-played in its ramshackle way, and is unfailingly tuneful.


Jandek: Ready For The House (Corwood 1978)

Ah come on! This is great! It's actually very musical, though I imagine (truthfully) Jandek finds it incredibly hard to listen to it himself. I know this from having made a similarly inept (though less musical) singer-songwriter LP, which I find impossible to listen to.

Jandek plays one out-of-tune chord all the way through. When each song finishes you think, actually you expect, that you'll get a different chord - it would be SO entertaining. But nope. Actually, come to reflect on it, there are slight differences. I have this filed in my No Wave section beside my John Gavanti LP. But, 1978! That's pretty amazing in itself.


Johnny Moped: Cycledelic (Chiswick 1978)

Here's a very good example of how digital can kill music. If you heard this on Spotify you'd absolutely hate it. This seemingly crude punk LP acquires its je-ne-sais-quoi from the grimy, spacious fingerprint of its original production. You can literally feel the damp studio walls, hear the rats scurrying. Although it's dirty, bollocks-out, rock there's a critical distance which has been completely destroyed in remastering which presses it down your earhole. On most other LPs this would not matter. This, to me, is like Position Normal - gutter, home-counties psychedelia. Lots of great tunes, entirely addictive chord sequences ("Darling, let's have another baby") and some surprisingly gentle passages. Great Barney Bubbles cover too.


Pyranha: Pyranha (Flow Motion 197?)

I picked this up in Switzerland from Belair records in Lausanne who reissued it. It's a Swiss Psych-Kraut-ish private pressing thing. Slightly clumsy but basically good gear.


Jesse Winchester: Jesse Winchester (Bearsville 1976)

This and the next LP are recommended by Geoff Travis in the Rough Trade book. Very interesting because largely the fans who enabled Punk were those open to what I'd call "Roots Rock". That's basically Rock'n'Roll that never grew up; Rock which stayed in the bars, stuck with the Blues or Soul and shunned the stadiums and the fancy production.

The Clash, for instance, are a band that originated from and steered increasingly close to "Roots Rock". The stylistic homogeneity that characterises all Roots music - the way it pairs up Reggae (or one stylistic incarnation of it best represented by Toots' records), New Orleans Funk and Country - that's a real figure of "Roots Rock." And of course the way it goes on to absorb Zydeco, Gumbo and like Paul Simon on into South African music. It's reductive, often silly, but not bad as aesthetics go.

This is really nice little album of funky bar-room rock. Tight band interplay. Rock-hard bass and drums. Stellar contributions from The Band's Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson. Alumni of who also, not coincidentally, also play on the Bobby Charles' LP and the Garland Jeffreys one...


Garland Jeffreys: Garland Jeffreys (Atlantic 1973)

Garland is in a terrain somewhere between Bill Withers, Terry Callier and Dr. John. Again, it's a slice of soulful Roots Rock haunted by the Stones of "Sticky Fingers". "Bound to get ahead someday" is a great surprise, recorded at Dynamic Sound, Kingston with a crop of top session musicians (Geoffrey Chung, Neville Hinds, Winston Wright). I've checked and this was after Paul Simon's "Mother and Child Reunion", still very weird to hear. Definitely worth experiencing.


Maggie and Terre Roche: Seductive Reasoning (CBS 1975)

I'm a big fan of The Roches debut - so imagine my surprise when I found out that two of the sisters had put out an LP earlier in the decade. In spite of Paul Simon's presence it bombed. Him again! Come to think of it I saw the movie again recently and Paul's splendid in Woody Allen's "Annie Hall". He's a much-maligned character nowadays. Like Eric Clapton and Phil Collins. This LP is a lovely, more muscular offering than their later stuff. Exquisite, high, keening harmonies in an Everly Brothers' style over rolling grooves.


Crack The Sky: Crack The Sky (Lifesong 1975)

This was recommended to me soon after the book came out. Rolling Stone made this "debut album of the year" when such a thing was presumably a big deal and the signpost to massive success. But it looks like they never broke out of Baltimore. The story of a thousand bands unfortunately. It is a little bit Proggy (as much as anything American was ever Proggy), a bit little bit Glam and a little bit Rock'n'Roll-ish; perhaps not anything distinctive enough? It's OK.

2.7.15

Document and Eyewitness

























I loved this book. It's put together from comprehensive interviews with all the involved parties. Only a couple of people are notable in their absence: the promoter Scott Pierling (who died) and Morrissey (who presumably wouldn't co-operate). Though the lucid and generous Johnny Marr more than covers for Stephen's absence.

The Paul Smith of the cover, blurb-whore, isn't the more famous Paul Smith (fashion emporium owner) - but the Paul Smith of Blast First. I wonder if the publisher grasped that? I suspect somewhere wires got crossed.

This came out ages ago in 2010. I was totally oblivious as to its existence. I think it must have been sitting untouched on the shelves of Waterstones on London Wall for five years now. I can't imagine many financial services people would be interested in buying it. Although, ironically, it does dwell largely, and with increasing complexity on the economics of the music business. There's almost nothing on the substance of the music itself, but it still makes for a fascinating prism.

The picture it paints is of a complicated scenario. Rough Trade saw themselves as being socialist. The reality was different. I should emphasise that not being a socialist myself, I don't think any the less of them for them having "missed the mark". Perhaps the fairest way to describe their path is that that they meant well.

The best things Geoff Travis did seem less to do with well-intended gestures like the Rough Trade Worker's Trust (put in place just as the organisation began to fall apart, and therefore presumably not worth very much to the workers in the final reckoning...), or equal wages but in sticking fast to the bitter end as the company collapsed around him. Or, unrelated to economics, reaching out to people like Robert Wyatt and enabling The Smiths by giving them the unmediated space they needed to blossom. One couldn't imagine a major label allowing Morrissey to dominate cover design like he did.

Because of course, Cambridge-graduate Geoff with his accountant dad who advises upon and invests in his son's fledgling record shop - in another harsher light it looks a little "trustafarian". Again, not that I would be critical of that, because I believe in parents supporting their children and in families working together. It should be reported that in the book, central figure Jo Slee, when it is recounted to her that Travis has described himself as a socialist, she and another employee laugh.

It does highlight the gap between the perceptions of what was going on and the reality. This disconnection was at the root of their problems. A very good example is the absurdity of the Cartel, Rough Trade's distribution wing. You don't need an MBA to grasp how stupid this was. In the name of trying to give young people in the provinces the opportunity to be part of the music business (honestly, that's their spiel, not mine) - they arranged to parcel up deliveries of records to different distribution nodes through the UK (for example to FAST in Edinburgh). These parcels were then taken apart in these regional centres and split up and sent to smaller shops. Why didn't Rough Trade just mail directly to these smaller shops? The reason is ideological. They thought they were doing the hicks in the sticks a favour.

Reading accounts of the shop floor madness, for instance the RT warehouse staff refusing to allow management into the warehouse, drums home that capitalist institutions work better when there is some degree of acceptance of the individual's role within the pyramid. No, the managing director is not inherently superior to the delivery van driver, but even as someone like Richard Boon reflects in the book when it comes to the issue of equal pay, he shoulders a greater burden. Ultimately staff are best served by a company that rewards diligence and which doesn't go tits up and throw them onto the dole.

I think it matters to highlight this financial insanity because although Rough Trade was turning over huge sums at the end of the eighties (turnover - that chimera of economic success), they went bust quite spectacularly. I wouldn't know how to manage the cashflow of a massive business like that, so again, I don't come in judgement. However, I do think it needs emphasising that running a large company requires great prudence and due attention. It is a position of responsibility and arguably one Rough Trade jeopardised by wonky ideas.

We hear a lot in the book about how terrible everyone felt about Rough Trade collapsing, but little from the poor debtors who worked very hard to supply the organisation with product and who trusted in them. Geoff Travis saw his life's work in tatters but presumably many people, most especially smaller labels, experienced the gut-wrenching misery of losing their own money ostensibly because of Rough Trade's mismanagement. To think nothing of the employees who faced redundancy.

In moral terms it is a difficult thing to call. In some ways, as I struggle to extract money for work I did from a company which is experiencing its own financial woes, it's sobering to have a view of the misery on the other side of the equation. As much as I feel, in righteous fury, that the situation is of their own-making; I still have a fundamental respect for employers. The way socialists talk about pernicious "bosses" gives no credit to the task of generating work for other people. Employing other people is a pretty nifty trick to pull off. In twenty years I've only ever hired in other people on two occasions. For every one fat cat, there are ten thousand employers who, with nerves of steel, have the responsibility of looking after ten or twenty people. Here's to them.

1.7.15

GY!BE


Saw this band for the first time last night. It's been quite a week for Post-Rock all told.

I'm playing catch-up really though - because after their debut I completely ignored them. But they've steered themselves with unerring accuracy to "classic" status. With unswerving consistency of aesthetic purpose.

There's no shying away from the political dimension. This is refusenik music: manichean, yes but also fiercely, pugnaciously righteous - with all the positivity that that connotes. Me, I don't buy their brand of North American dissent. I'm not saying I don't respect it, but it smacks of posture and hypocrisy.

It's a joy to place them in a continuum. They're like Creedence Clearwater revival meets the Velvet Underground. Actually I was tripping out on the idea of Mo, Sterling, John and Lou being let loose on those amplifiers. The Gun Club also sprung to mind. And fIREHOSE's "frOMOHIO". But all screwed down.

They peaked their set, I mean absolutely broke loose at the end of the last track at 120 bpm. I counted it - one elephant. Like a giant lumbering beast. Gotta love those massive, four-guitar-thick, depth-defying chord sequences. Immensely satisfying, like egg-nog; and (presumably) wearing plaid.



The Desperate Bicycles: Smokescreen