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‘Wipe Out’: A Rock/Improv Missing Link?

There are a few albums that serve almost as ‘missing links’ or ‘roads not taken’, in the syncretic worlds of classic rock and jazz, for example Frank Zappa’s 1969 Hot Rats, Soft Machine’s 1970 Three and Henry Cow’s Unrest (1974). I’ve recently ‘discovered’ Amalgam’s 1979 live recordings from a northern England tour, called Wipe Out, and it’s one more jigsaw piece from that most turbulent of musical decades. It was the Covid ‘lock down’ that led me to Wipe Out, as it gave me the time to complete my long-researched book on the London Musicians Collective (LMC), in the midst of which I realised that this forgotten collection was still available, even though I had to use Discogs to source it from Finland, and it took over four weeks to arrive. Still, it’s good to remember that we once had to delay gratification to get to the music we were interested in!!

Wipe Out is a little remembered item, and its easy to see why. John Wickes mentions it in his long out-of-print classic, ‘Innovations in British Jazz (1960-1980)’, in which he describes the “special brand of crude speed and eerie effects” from AMM’s Keith Rowe, here playing what can almost be described as ‘punk’ guitar, just as he subsequently essayed on 1979′s It Had Been an Ordinary Enough Day in Pueblo, Colorado, AMM’s supposed ‘rock album’. Wickes cleverly compares the effect of Rowe’s muscular playing on Trevor Watts to “that of Pharoah Sanders on John Coltrane, inspiring him to his ecstatic outest, and at times in these performances, the group seemed possessed” (Wickes, 1980, page 237).

Brian Olewnick, in his Rowe biography of  2018, was rather more condescending to this iteration of Amalgam, and felt that Rowe was betraying the ideals of AMM, by playing in “an essentially reactionary fashion” (page 253). It’s certainly somewhat disconcerting to hear the guitarist of The Crypt and AMMMusic riffing repeated distorted and rather crude figures, but he does manage to smear the group sound in various challenging and at times unpleasant ways, just as he did in these earlier AMM recordings. “Context is all”, as someone once said, and the context here was the punk and post-punk ‘movements’ that organisations like the LMC were more than happy to accommodate. Olewnick, despite his sniffiness, does point out the potential links between Wipe Out and Ornette Coleman’s recently formed electric band Prime Time (whose eventual breakthrough album, Of Human Feelings, was recorded in March, 1979), Ornette’s guitarist James Blood Ulmer (who came to attention, in this country at least, in 1980, with the Rough Trade Records release of Are You Glad to be in America?) and Last Exit, the ‘jazz punk’ supergroup which formed in the mid-1980s, and featured another jazz-skronk guitarist, Sonny Sharrock.  Bassist Colin McKenzie played some pronounced contemporary, funk-ified ‘slap bass’ in Wipe Out, what’s more, just as Liam Genockey was clearly an experienced rock drummer.

I would never previously had placed Rowe in this lineage. However, the other notable feature of this line-up was in providing one of the few examples of a collaboration of ‘First Generation’ improvisers from its two main ensembles, AMM and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME). Other than Wipe Out (and Over the Rainbow by the same Amalgam), we only have SME saxophonist Evan Parker’s duos with AMM’s Rowe and Eddie Prevost, and the Supersession (1984) band (consisting of Rowe, Prevost, Parker and former SME bassist, Barry Guy) to show for any recorded and released collaborations between these two seismic improvising ensembles. Wipe Out remains a curate’s egg, and in many ways resembles more of a Free Jazz blow-out than it does either a ‘laminar’ or an ‘atomistic’ proposition (the twin poles of free improv ‘styles’), but it is undoubtedly a powerful product of that time. A good indication of its impact is the sound of the Music Revelation Ensemble (which featured a young David Murray and Ulmer, along with Ornette alumni Jamaaladeen Tacoma and Ronald Shannon Jackson). 

‘Energising’, and some would say, somewhat paradoxically, ‘enervating’ material (’Tribute to Mingus’ is nearly 40 minutes [over] long), this is very, very intense stuff, but should be of interest to all of those interested in free improvisation, free jazz, jazz-rock, jazz-funk and rock, i.e. loads of us! Trevor Watts’ contribution deserves a blog in itself, a musician who is the same age as Bob Dylan, and one who remains an equivalent example of creative longevity.

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