Parker Burwell Toop credit Jak Kilby


Dub and  a Club

I’ve been relatively starved of out-of-the-house entertainments since the onset of lockdowns great and small, so it was lovely to experience two such in just one afternoon a few days back - the celebration of ‘Dub Music in London’ at the Museum of London, and Ronnie’s, the documentary film about the famous jazz club. It’s certainly strange to see this music, which I immersed myself in from approximately 1976-1980, being monumentalised in a museum, especially when I remember how radical it seemed at the time.

David Toop reviewed Keith Hudson and the 2nd. Street Dreads’ Pick-a- Dub in Musics magazine 4 (October/November 1975, page 25), describing it as “Classical music”. I got hold of the album the following summer (the sweltering summer of ‘76) and initially couldn’t get my head round it (the cheap packaging and minimal content of the original Atco release, with its iconic cover drawing of a dread smoking a joint under a palm tree, contributed considerably to the its DIY vibe, at just about the same time as the bogus pomp of the record industry was gradually being questioned.) It took me a while to get used to the stripped-down nature of dub (which were prescient of so many fashionable ‘moves/movements’ in years to come), and I’m very pleased to see that Hudson’s (often under-acknowledged) work has now been placed at the very center of the music’s history, with Pick-a-Dub a certified early classic. It became one of the most hip sounds of the late-70s, and the likes of Public Image Limited concretised this with Metal Box, and the incredible ‘megamix’ of ‘Death Disco’ on a 12-inch deconstruction of that PiL game-changer.

For me, the dubs of so many ‘roots reggae’ songs of the 1970s remains the sine qua non of the whole genre. There are far too many to even begin to itemise here, but the undoubted master has to remain the late King Tubby (with Prophesy of Dub as the absolute pinnacle, with Yabby You’s vocals, imho, beautifully celebrated on CD on the great Blood and Fire label.)  Sure, concepts like Macro-Dub Infection gained further currency in the 1990s, and the whole Pole/Oval ‘glitch’ ‘movement’ extended the idea on to white electronica auteurs, but these lacked (sorry) the sheer emotional heft of the roots-related material. It all began to end with the ascension of ragga onto the Jamaican scene in the early 80s (Scientist being an obvious exception, with his series of comic-book sleeves that contained fantastic digital dub within.)

Ronnie’s also comes highly recommended, and I would be interested to hear opinions from people who were there at the time. Understandably, it focuses on Ronnie The Man, as flawed and as human as he sounds. I would have been interested in a deeper investigation into 60s and 70s British jazz in general (for example, Ronnie’s generous offer to house the ‘new generation’ in ‘The Old Place’ in Gerrard from 1966-8), but I accept that this is a micro-view, and more properly the subject of another film. Great footage and some moving tributes remain, and I recommend the film without hesitation. What’s more, I am about to revisit the John Fordham literary biography, ‘Jazz Man’, enthused as I am. A brief glimpse of the celebrated Soho figure, John Jack, glimpsed on the door at 70′s Frith Street, reminded me of what a great  loss to the history of counter-cultural Soho his passing represents. We need to further access and record these memories before it is too late.

Autechre - Milder, Kinder Beatz?

I was listening to the car radio last week, and an electronica track was played, one that left me expostulating to Mrs. Barre (who was driving), to the effect that this sort of digital easy listening gets on my nerves. It turned out to be the third number on the latest Autechre outing, ‘si00′ (idiosyncratically described in this month’s Wire magazine as “electronic xylophone bongo bounce”), being a typically snappily oblique title by the Rochdale duo. “I thought you liked Autechre?” Jackie helpfully pointed out. “I do”, I responded, “but I’m a bit baffled. This sounds very middle of the road for them”. I later described the album on YouTube, after a couple of cursory listenings, as “Popul Vuh for Generation Z”, not a particularly accurate summation, however, since they’ve been giving us their work for nigh on 30 years (they’ve seen us through both Generations X and Y.)

My overall impression is that it is a continuation of a direction that Autechre have been gradually taking, that of a smoother, less fractured soundfield. The peak of their work, for me, is the album ‘run’ of Tri Repetae, Untilted, Chiastic Slide, LP5, Confield and Draft 7.30 (1993-2003), certifiable classics that explored ‘fucked-up beats’ to their, and our hearts, content. The new one, SIGN, seems to acknowledge their legacy of cubist dance music on a few tracks, but ‘expands’ (or ‘contracts’, even?) into a more keyboard-washed sound (hence the Popul Vuh comparison.) If I was subject to a ‘blindfold test’, I’d probably have it down as an offspring of Cosmik Music/Krautrock, to be honest. No bad thing in itself, but a far cry from their canonical 90s material. I have to admit to not having really followed Autechre since 2013′s double, Exai, as Rob and Sean seem to have decided to monumentalise their output through gargantuan projects such as elseq 1-5 and the NTS 8-discbox-set, as well as ambitious streaming projects, which demand many hours of commitment from the listener, for even a single listen. The tyranny of choice writ large.

Now they are back in a more easily digested form, in 2020, with apparently another disc coming out in November. Their huge output remains impressive, and contrasts with the relatively minimal release schedule of their contemporary duo, Boards of Canada, and we are lucky to still have them. I can’t see me realistically listening too often to SIGN, but I have just ordered a copy of William Basinski’s newie, Lamentations, which I think, very curiously, seems not a million miles away from Autechre’s new environments. Whatever and all, for me there have been so few recent recording milestones since Covid-19 (Rough and Rowdy Ways, Run the Jewels 4?), that it is just great to have a few to discuss and/or fulminate about. It would be nice to have a new Richard Dawson, to take but one from my Xmas wish list.

‘Ronnie’s’ film, Part Two

My most sublime Ronnie’s experience, by far, was getting to witness Cecil Taylor’s Feel Trio (with Tony Oxley and William Parker) in 1990, some of which is immortalised as part of 2 T’s for a lovely T, a typically opaque Cecil title for an excoriating 5-CD set on the late Richard Cook’s Codanza label, finally released in 2002, and all recorded live in London in that year. I also saw a solo CT performance at the  Camden Town Jazz Cafe a few months later, so, in retrospect, lucky, lucky me!

It’s certainly one of my most cherished live gig experiences. I attended with two of my more assertive friends, who, after we arrived at a packed Ronnie’s, barged our way to the very front and garnered us seats literally a few feet away from the master, just behind him in fact, and we luxuriated in the full Taylor-immersion, watching as the back of his shirt slowly become more and more drenched with his sweat, until the whole shirt was utterly sodden. What a totally committed performer! Two sets of rampant power that made my fifty quid well, well worth spending. 

My last attendance at the club was much less special, however, as I went to support one of my mates who was bassist for a never-remembered pop band who somehow got to play a showcase at this hallowed venue. This rest is not history, sadly

My experiences of the years of the very early 90s are mostly of being a new parent, with a baby boy (and soon, a baby girl), taking up much of our ‘leisure’ time, but when I look at my tickets of that time (sad, I know, and so anachronistic!), it seems to have been a good period to see seriously great American masters in sympathetic venues. Seeing an avant master like Cecil Taylor at Ronnie’s fairly conservative club was especially memorable, but I seem to remember that the Jazz Cafe, previously sited in a long, thin, tiny space in Newington Green (I saw a duo of Evan Parker and Stan Tracey there in its final days, both of these English masters squeezed into a bow window the size of  that of my own front room), had moved to a much more prestigious space in Camden Town (it’s still there, although I would hesitate to call it a ‘jazz’ cafe.) This was, I think, in late 1989, and, on the opening night, it had still not managed to even get a license for alcoholic drinks, so it was orange juice all round. I recall that the opening act was a duo of the very lauded tenor saxophonist/composer David Murray and percussionist Khalil El’ Zabir, a very promising start for the reinvigorated Jazz Cafe.

In 1990, I saw both the Feel Trio and Anthony Braxton’s quartet with Marilyn Crispell at the same venue, but it was soon apparently nearly bankrupted, and a far more conservative programme soon emerged, with a focus on Latin-tinged jazz, a far more tractable proposition for the would-be jazz hipster of the time. I’ve only been back there a handful of times, catching a Charles Gayle set, as far back as 1996, as one rare example. However, not only catching Cecil at two gigs in 1990, I also caught the Sun Ra Arkestra at Harlesden’s Mean Fiddler and at the Hackney’s Empire (both are now available in recorded form, the former originally being made available to Wire subscribers shortly after the performance.) It’s always very difficult to extrapolate generalities from one’s own experience, but that particular time did feel generous to the ‘mainstream’ of progressive jazz-related forms, and  its more experimental wings, as I hope my upcoming biography of the London Musicians’ Collective will further demonstrate.

It wasn’t really until the opening of Cafe Oto in 2008 that a genuine home for genre-busting music emerged. Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club has a glorious past, as I hope the film will show, but I doubt that I will go there again, unless it has a genuinely GIANT surprise for me. Long may it survive and prosper.

Ronnie Scott’s Club on Film, Part One

I intended to watch the premiere of the new film by director Oliver Murray, just called Ronnie’s, last Friday, but postponed it because my wife wanted to get out of the house to the pub for a bit, after a week of working at home. So I’m going to the Kings Cross Everyman the day after tomorrow to see what sounds like a trip down memory land, back to the Soho of 1959 and beyond, and the time when the area was relatively cheap for musicians to play and live in, and still had a sense of decadence and risk for the average punter, whether from the London suburbs or their provincial equivalents. As we slowly move towards winter lockdown measures, it’s become a real treat to go to the cinema, even more so when this can be combined with access to music outside of the home environment, even if its only on celluloid.

I read John Fordham’s biography of Scott, entitled Jazz Man, many years ago (it was originally called Let’s Join Hands and Join the Living, one of his favourite taunts, designed to galvanise a torpid audience.) He can be said to have lived a proper ‘jazz life’, with plenty of sex and drugs, as well as bouts of depression and mental health issues. His death at the age of 69 was caused by an accidental overdose of barbiturates, but his life had already been shattered by botched dentistry which ruined his embouchure and prematurely ended his playing career. For a devoted player and a man prone to low moods, this was a mortal blow. He left, however, a world famous jazz club, one that he had created to stand alongside such New York immortals as The Village Vanguard, Sweet Basil’s and Birdland. To step into it is almost to step into a bygone era.

Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club is notoriously expensive, and I have only been there (I think) on four occasions over the years. Even 30 years ago, one was lucky to get away with less than 50 quid a head, as, apart from the entrance fee and drinks, one was obliged to consume the very average food that the club served up. Still and all, it was a ‘special night out’ type of place, propped up in many ways by tourists and businessmen out to impress clients and/or mistresses. Money was always an issue, and the club needed a non-specialist audience in order to survive.

The gigs that I managed to attend were mostly in the early 1990s. The first was a Cedar Walton quartet, with tenor saxophonist Jean Toussaint, then just out of one of the latter day iterations of Art Blakey Jazz Messengers; I’m not sure why I stumped up to see Walton, as I was never particularly a fan, but I seem to remember that there were a lot of us there that night, so I can only assume that we were under some degree of peer pressure. I did take to the place immediately though - it did feel like being in the center of things somehow. After that, there was a Dave Holland quartet, with Steve Coleman (then at the height of his M-Base hipness), Marvin ‘Smitty’ Smith and guitarist Kevin Eubanks (they had just released Extensions on ECM Records.)  My time-eroded memories now only recall my being impressed with Eubanks and Smith, but much less with Coleman (everyone is entitled to an off night!). But the very best was to just around the corner.

To be continued.

‘Disintegration Tapes’ / Disintegrating Times

I’m pleased to say that my book on the London Musicians’ Collective (LMC) is now at it’s formatting phase, and I quietly hope to “have it in the shops” next month (November). By “shops”, I mean The Wire Bookshop, my website and, hope against hope, even Waterstones, if I can navigate the latter’s byzantine publishing requirements. We shall see.

I spent the early months of the first lockdown (March-May) completing the LMC project, and barely read anything else at all. Instead, I gorged on Netflix and YouTube, as, I suspect, did much of the UK. I lost my reading mojo for a time, but have now rediscovered it, and have consumed three ‘party political’ tomes, an area into which I seldom venture. These consist of one ‘right wing’ and two ‘left wing’ publications, all of which have left me feeling that this country is on it’s own disintegrative ’loop’, the obvious accompanying soundtrack to which must surely be William Basinski’s celebrated Disintegration Loops, his massive, digital tape-decaying, ambient minimalist masterpiece, wherein you can feel and experience lapse and loss in real time. If there was ever a true ‘hauntological’ work, then this is it. Reading these three books, which variously describe the UK political scene of the last Tory-heavy decade, left me feeling that they all contributed to a literary correlative of Basinski’s six- part opus. From the Conservative side, we have Sasha Swire’s Diary of an MPs Wife: Inside and Outsider Power, and in the left hand corner, we have Owen Jones’ This Land: the Story of a Movement, and Left Out: the Inside Story of Labour Under Corbyn by Gabriel Posgrund and Patrick Maguire. I would heartily recommend all three.

Like Basinski’s composition, the past decade seems to me to be a narrative of declining and decelerating standards, presentation and meaning, resulting in an overall sense of sadness and  lamentation (Lamentations is the title of Basinski’s most recent release, by the way.) Swire’s ‘ex-MP husband’ is the lightweight Hugo Swire, whose existence I had been unaware of till his wife’s book, and whose main achievement appears to consist of being a close chum of ‘Dave’ Cameron and his spouse ‘Sam-Cam’. Her book is an entertaining piece of gossip-lit (although she clearly thinks that she is politically smart, which she definitely isn’t.) What sadly comes across is a massively entitled, spoilt smartass (as you would expect, given the territory), who clearly has the hots for Cameron and ‘Boy George’ Osborne. What effectively sums Swire up is her statement that ‘“history will judge Dave kindly”, a notion which is surely borderline delusional. 

History, unfortunately, will probably not judge Jeremy Corbyn and his Labour Party kindly either, going on the two books which describe his time as leader. Toxic factionalism stalk the pages of these books, and demonstrates how ultimately unsuitable the party was for government/ ‘high office’, with JC coming across as weak, conflict-avoidant, rigid and faintly arrogant, behind the bumbling bonhomie. And these were written by Corbyn sympathisers! The sheer inescapable fact that they were crushed by probably the worst, most corrupt administration in my lifetime sums up the whole dysfunctional mess, the right ‘Blairite’ wing of the Labour Party appearing particularly nasty and personal in their behaviour and actions, with the ‘Corbynistas mostly seeming merely inexperienced, incompetent and chaotic. There was never any chance of this party, in its then-form, winning any election, with the 2017 iteration merely providing Labour with premature false hope, what with Theresa May’s anti-charisma and her lack of social media savvy. Corbyn’s Glastonbury ‘rock star’ moment retrospectively looks like a ghastly moment of over-confidence and hubris. Jeremy, like his nemesis Boris, liked the lazy limelight of the converted.

Our  nation’s current situation, with a government bent on denying poor children school meals, ffs, shows how decayed we have become over the past decade, our moral, ethical and intellectual compass disintegrated by a party that appears bent on becoming as amoral as the repellent modern Republican Party. ‘Vote Biden!’ seems the only rallying call that can offer some hope for us at the present time, and one that might give Boris Johnson and his cabinet of all-the-no-talents some pause for thought if Sleepy Joe (hopefully as in ‘Sleepy’ John Estes?) wins this most significant of modern elections. Maybe “there is no alternative” of “The End of History” might prove to be somewhat premature?

William Basinski’s Disintegration Tapes 1-6 are required listening, and are available on YouTube, with suitable accompanying visual imagery.

Older Posts

Custom Post Images

Banner and book cover photo credit: Jak Kilby