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Wednesday, 15 November 2006

Rip it Up and Carry on From Where We Left Off Yesterday (Second Edition)...

As the over-long, ill-informed, over-opinionated pop-crit seems to be drying up all but the hardiest of my commentes, I'll keep on with this thread in the hope of wearing down what remains of the resistance...they can only hold out for so long...

Some excellent sections towards the end of the book - on Scritti Politti and the whole Frankie/ZTT phenomenon, of which more later. There's also a lovely passing note on John Peel and the cassette-only labels that sprang up around the DIY ethos his show fostered and showcased. Most notable of these - "the Rough Trade" of Indie Cassette labels - was the gloriously named Fuck Off Records, home of bands such as Danny & the Dressmakers (whose songs included "Come on Baby Lite my Shite" and "Going Down the Sperm Bank Four Quid a Wank"...) The pre-eminent example of this so-bad-it's-good genre has to be a C60 length tape by the Teen Vampires "which consisted of an argument between singer and bassist" released despite/because of it was, according to label owner Kif, "the worst tape I've ever heard"...If anyone has a copy, please do the decent thing....

The Scritti Politti sections are interesting, tracing Green Gartside's transformation from Gramsci-spewing anarcho-squat-guru to bland purveyor of lite-skanking, radio friendly pap (apologies to Betty - I'm in unforgiving mood today, even though I've had that bladdy "The 'sweetest' girl" song going through my bladdy head all day...) There's a highly amusing couple of paragraphs in which Reynolds paraphrases the novel-length essay Gartside wrote for his fellow band members explaining, with full reference to Marcusse, Derrida et al and deploying a whole host of other French intellectuals' theses and theorems, strategems and ruses etc., his decision to turn the group into highly commercialised major label chart fodder a million miles away from the idealistic earlier DIY collective. Well, it made me laugh. The results - a succession of increasingly banal efforts at what Reynolds describes as "the new pop", only devoid of the wit, melodic power and pop historical nous of rivals ABC - finally secured a hit with 'Wood Beez' (which always sounded like some new-fangled furniture polish to me...) before Green and the assemblage of session musicians and drum machines that then passed for Scritti Politti were eventually consigned to languish in their rightful "where are they now?" file by a grateful record buying public....well, you play with fire, you get burned....

ABC emerge from the book as one of many acts worthy of re-evaluation (I rather draw the line at Gazza Numan, mind...). Reynolds astutely pinpoints the humanizing detail of Martin Fry's pock-marked skin still visible behind the pancake make up. Similarly, his voice was just the right side of ordinary to debunk his larger than life, boys' own hero persona. The gold lame was great though, wasn't it? In fact, Reynolds seems to write most insightfully about the more accessible bands and those who, to varying degrees, broke out of the post-punk underground to achieve a broader appeal. Human League offshoots Heaven 17 are a case in point, Reynolds pinning down the ironies of the group's ambivalent attitude towards their only slightly parodic corporate-style image (they were, indeed, less a group that a production company and had a dozen album per year licensing deal inked before they'd even started working on any material, such was the efficiency of their negotiating skill and organisational acumen). As an aside, I recall seeing Glenn Gregory and Ian Craig Marsh (or was it Martyn Ware?) frequently in leafy Twickenham in the early eighties. So they must have been coining it. A far cry from the firebrand socialist environment they grew up in. "We don't need this fascist groove thang" was brilliant though, wasn't it?

It was ABC though who inadvertently brought together one of the most unlikely combinations ever to (dis)grace the pop firmament. Paul Morley and Trevor Horn met on the set of an ABC video shoot. Morley, a fierce proponent of the lush new pop embodied by the Sheffield group had already given Horn's work with Dollar a much-needed (if not actually sought) credibility boost via the NME. This heightened profile had in turn brought the ex-Buggle to the attention of the band as a producer who might be capable of providing the lushness and power they felt their songs deserved but had so far been unable to achieve in the studio. Despite having initially repelled Horn (unsurprising, as the Dollar-worshipping NME writer had tried to kiss him...) it was Morley to whom the producer turned to provide McLarenesque propagandist skills when Horn formed his own ZTT label.

Surprisingly, Morley's ideas actually sound very good on paper - to paraphrase hugely, what would pop sound like if it had been conceived of as a continuation of European Futurist and Modernist art movements, free from the taint of American rock 'n' roll? Indeed, the idea sounds so compelling that you wish the records themselves had actually conformed more to that description. As it is, Reynolds description of the Frankie sound as punk as if it had been based around Donna Summer's I feel Love rather than US garagebands, more accurately factors in the fact that there was a significant debt owed to (primarily black American) disco music. And as you read on you start to recall Wilde's famous maxim about those who can doing, those who can't become NME journalists and as such should never, ever be allowed anywhere near a recording studio or A&R department. Perhaps the logical endpoint of all the modernist speculations that the rest of the book charts, the series of singles released by Frankie in 1983-4 was the sound and spectacle of the theorist and the anal-retentive technician untrammelled and unleashed. As Reynolds suggests, not so much the end of post-punk as a portent of the manipulated and manufactured hype-up horrors of the boy bands who followed.

In the end, you almost feel for the Frankies. Their desperate lust for fame leading them to jump at ZTT's astonishingly regressive advance and royalties deal (for the publishing, a four (!?) figure advance and 5% (!!??) between the group - that on a series of records that sold several million copies in total. I'm sure Larry Parnes got Johnny Gentle a better whack than that, in real terms...Shame on you Paul Morley!) Then, once in the studio, "The Lads" who had provided the musical accompaniment for singing stars Holly Johnson and Paul Rutherford found themselves edged out of the recording process in favour of, at one time or another, the Blockheads, a panoply of samplers and sequencers, Anne Dudley and....basically, anyone who wasn't them. The sole contribution of Frankie as a collective is the (presumably heavily treated) sound of their jizz-fizz-apeing dive into a swimming pool. It is, of course, the record's high point.

The ebbing away of Frankie-mania after an unsuccessful attempt to woo the more hype-resistant American audience is a fitting end point for the book. Reynolds draws subtle parallels between the heaps of discarded Frankie merchandise, hollow and empty keepsakes when placed aside the still desirable punk memorabilia. "Ever have the feeling you've been cheated?", he asks, echoing Lydon's famous Pistols valediction, suggesting that both their band and their fans had been victims of a scam. Fortunately, schadenfreude awaited the ZZT mob. Refusing to take part in a Morley-proposed "Great Frankie Says Swindle" movie, despite the lure of a Martin Amis screenplay and Nic Roeg as director, the band insisted on recording as themselves on the follow up to Welcome to the Pleasuredome, Liverpool. Their hamfisted attempts at equalling the massive Horn/session players generated sound of the first album proved costly. 750,000 of ZZT's greedily accrued ackers went down the swanny as the album sold a dozen or so copies to the planet's last remaining Frankie completists. And Morley washed up having to sit next to Germaine Greer. That's karma for you...

The concluding after-chapter puts what came before in better context - the drabness and secondhand nature of much of the later 80s and 90s scenes (Prince and The Smiths being, as Reynolds and I concur, rare and much loved exceptions) does help strengthen his claims for the post-punk era. It might have made a better introduction, in fact. Reynolds holds up for particular scorn the claim made by Primal Scream's (in my view vastly over-appreciated) Robbie Gillespie, that rock music is a library from which artists are free to pick and choose at will. We might admire sonnets written in a different era, says Reynolds, but who writes them today? It's a fine line, I suppose, between being in thrall to one's inspirations and fuelled by them. Reynolds rather blots his copybook by not laying into Frank Ferdinand for being precisely the kind of copyists he lambasts elsewhere....but he was bound to be tired after all that typing and listening to art school wank (not to mention grammar school wank) for the last 5 years.

But seriously, I enjoyed the book much more than I thought I would - although I have to admit skipping the sections on stuff like Throbbing Gristle and industrial music. TG seemed old hat and pointlessly peripheral at the time and having been forced to 'study' them at art school (and, yes, it really *is* all wank, for those who haven't had the dubious privilege...) I rather think I've made my contribution. Although I suppose they *did* call for the canonization of Brian Jones...Reynolds is ultimately unsure as to whether the time he's spent obsessively following the twists and turns of the music that's arrived in the wake of punk might have been spent doing something more worthwhile. I guess we could all say the same though.


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12 comments:

  1. Awight, Bobster?

    In answer to your question back in August as to my whereabouts, I have no idea.

    Absolutely none.

    Expect a burst of feverish activity in the next few days followed by another long, dark night of the soul.

    Bangin'!
    LdP

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  2. It's no good, you won't stop us playing those classic Scritti albums. "I was like an industry, depressed and in decline."

    Me and a friend chose a new band each to see which one would make it big. He chose ABC, I chose Haircut 100. Heady days.

    I still prefer the Haircuts.

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  3. Any chance of a Bobcast Robert for old cunts like me who got left behind? "Going Down the Sperm Bank Four Quid a Wank" sounds like my kind of thing.

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  4. Brilliant writing Bobster. Interesting that you mention the memorabilia from the era. I wonder what makes the music and the objets d'art/pop 'last' in that way. Like you say, buying into some kind of fad and being manipulated could be part of it. But, also, I wonder how much of it is also linked to the 'art' of Westwood? Those articles of clothing were works of art and beautifully made. Westwood relentlessly searched for the finest details (buttons, ribbons and authentic fabrics). They were fine clothes, which would last. She's even buying them back from fans herself.

    Frankie weren't so much icons or revolutionaries as The Sex Pistols - they had a great song, which challenged sexuality and captured a fear of sex, which was prevalent at the time. Interesting similarities to Lydon as well...Johnson challenged the idea of the male and the performer. There is a playful, yet extremely powerful aura to them both. Although I think Lydon had the edge. And there was a look in both of their faces, which was saying, 'Just try me, go on.' I liked that defiance about both of them. And, of course, the link with the 'banned' (band). I was playing 'Anarchy' in a lesson a few months back and I thought, this actually sounds soft now. But incredible as well.

    Not keen on Scritti or ABC. And you'll be pleased that Ant's brother punched Gazza Numan in the face in the dinner queue.

    A great piece of writing Bob - loved it.

    Sorry if I waffled. Didn't mean to.

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  5. Bob... just write a book. Just do it.

    Oh, and I agree about the Haircuts. They were fab.

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  6. Yes...get writing. I keep telling you...

    Keep pinching him Tim until he does.

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  7. Not only did my brother have the pleasure of punching Gary Numan, he also once punched out the drummer of Mud.
    The trouble with Frankie was the smoothing out of all the rough edges ... early gigs had them dressing up like something out of a Genet novel. The music, though, was always a bit shite ... without Horn's De Mille-like production, they were nothing.

    What gets my goat with chancers like Franz Ferdinand (and wankers like the Strokes ... new Velvets? New Knack, more like)is the way they merely brandished those supposed influences without taking on the troublesome aspects ... the politics, the desire to challenge the audience ... and all the time they just use the classic pop template ... I mean, post-punk was about more than just "classic" song writing and smooth production, which usually boils down to the poxy Beatles and their ilk. Don't F.F. use accoustic guitars? ACCOUSTIC GUITARS!!?? Piss off!
    I speak as a veteran of punk and what followed ... in those days it was about more than trying to get on some old wank like TOTP or whatever shit they have now ... I mean, Ian Curtis was actually trying to make art - poor deluded fool, What was he thinking of?
    Christ, the No Wave lot hardly ever played outside NYC, getting heavy media rotation wasn't an option.

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  8. Following on from this and your previous 'rip it up' stuff - there was always a big audience up North for Bowie and Roxy - the Liverpool fans in particular were notable for great dress sense and wit ... and the Pistols always said their best audiences were "oop North". Hence the difference between the London Blitz scene (after punk but not post punk)and the scenes up North. We got Spandau Ballet, they got Pink Military. The London scene, even in the first flush of punk was too glib, to fashion-minded ...

    I take on board what you say about some bands straying so far from a notional template of 'pop music' as to defeat the purpose ... the interesting thing about the Godlike genius of James Chance is how the Contortions were simultaneously the most pop and the most outre of the No Wave bands (I think I'm following Glenn O'Brian in this) - much as I like noise, some of the work of bands like Mars for instance is just that ... noise, with no art or craft going into the shaping. DNA were brilliant at working around that contradiction, like Chance.

    Can I just say that the current cannonisation of Joe Strummer and the crappy old Clash is merely a bad joke? Taking rhe first wave of punk, there was the Pistols and there was everyone else ... evryone knows it, the bozos in the Clash knew it ... 'London Calling' best album ever???!!! What, compared to 'Metal Box'? Hidebound senile tradition compared to Modernist wit and courage. I always say, most rock critics are like most rock musicians, scared to stray out of their comfort zone of poxy old boogie and reheated Beatles tat.
    I always loved Keith Levine's assertion that all guitarists should have their little fingers amputated so they can't play 12 bar blues.

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  9. LdP: Nice to have you back. Just don't listen to anymore Joy Division, OK? We don't want anyone else dangling from the kitchen ceiling now, do we...


    Geoffster - you listen to whoever you want to sunshine. All the years of NME slating have never dimmed my appreciation of Roger Whittaker. On the contary, Skye Boat Song is *still* the best piece of work anyone's managed to coax out of Des O'Connor. And on *that* I'll stake wha's left of my critical reputation.

    Dickster: would that I could. Unfortunately, the terms of the Care in the Community agreement only allow me to use semaphore. Besides, I don't have a copy of the Sperm Bank thing. Mind you, with inflation, it's probably nearer 20 notes. Do you think they'll accept roteen ones with bits dripping off?

    Mollster, Timster. OK, I own up. I *am* actually Nick Kent writng under a pseudonym. Hope that won't stop you recommending me to all your publishing pals...

    St. Ansters,

    I'm with you on the Strokes and Frank F. Indeed, the thing that's stuck with me after reading the Reynolds book is how anti the whole NME journalist canon I have become. I just get fed up of this whole worthy list that you're supposed to bow down before - much as you despise the Beatles hegemony, I would imagine.

    I like coming at things in my own time, not because artists or movements are in critical favour. I was 12 in 1977 and I was just beginning to discover 50s rock 'n' roll and doo wop and trying to dress like a Teddy Boy. Sam the Sham & the Pharoahs probably meant more to me than punk at the time. If I'm honest, I founfd the whole punk thing quite frightening as an 11-12 year old, but I guess that was quite a sweet reaction to it if you think how blase and unshockable and ironic kids are today, so I feel no shame.

    I guess also thaty I've always been a pop fan, rather than a rock fan. To this day, I can only take so much guitar histrionics (heavy metal of any sort is just not for me, I'm afraid) and I think because I absorbed a lot of 70s chart music - the early reggae, Philly soul and general pop tat that used to be very carefully manufactured and conventionaly structured - it's sort of stunted me in that regard.

    But then, I guess it depends what you want from music, doesn't it? I'm very much a hedonist in life and art, a very lazy person, so I can derive huge amounts of pleasure, the bliss surging around the old spinal cortex just listening to Charlie Watts' riding out the fade of Tumbling Dice. I've gone beyond the point where I really care whether I'm supposed to like the Velvet Underground more than The Rolling Stones or if I am in some way deficient because I'm not as big a fan of Fodderstompf as I am of Public Image (the song). I don't know, I just feel that there's so much mediation of the self nowadays and the one thing that's quite indivisible from one's sense of self is one's record collection. You're kind of stuck with it, aren't you? And mine is a very unadventurous and prosaic one - but there you go.

    I remember my mate at the time and I used to sort of vie with each other to get into the most extreme music that we could find up until we were about 16. Then for some reason, we sort of went the other way and started to deliberately out do each other in the sort of 'normal' music we could say we were into.

    A very rambling response, but I suppose to clarify my views, I just don't want to be a slave to any critical system but my own, completely arbitrary and irrationally prejudiced one. Alfie would say, "they ain't got you one way, they got you another..."

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  10. No, you're quite right about critical systems ... that what annoys me about the Clash thing. Didn't Rolling Stone spend the last two decades trying to shove Bob Seeger or whatever down our throats?
    Stuff you discover on your own always has much more resonance.

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  11. Leave Scritti Politti alone!! "Boom !! There She Was" was a classic.

    "Boom !! There She Was"

    It sums it all up for me. Maybe THAT track was about Thatcher?

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