Parker Burwell Toop credit Jak Kilby


Henry Cow - In Praise of (Written) Learning

As I said a few blogs back, I was intending to read the rest of Benjamin Piekut’s new book on Henry Cow, having been recently sent a copy of the book’s Introduction by the author himself. As I said in the blog, the chapter was mainly contextual, siting the Cow in their time and place, and stating their main influences: jazz, Frank Zappa and then-contemporary classical composers such as the Darmstadt lot and the serialists. I was never really a huge Cow fan - I loved Unrest, however, which has remained a personal favourite, being one of the three purchases that I made immediately before starting university (the others being Escalator Over the Hill and From the Mars Hotel, if you’re in any way interested).. I will always remain fond of these three albums as madeleine-like portals to the autumn of 1974.

I’m always up for a good read about music, and feel that the early 70s is a rather neglected period for leftfield recordings. There were a lot of these between, say, 1969 and 1974, but most critics seem to regard these years as a slough of prog rock and jazz-rock follies, so I’m always interested in books that explore this time in a more positive frame of mins. Piekut is an academic writer, and his books are published by university presses - his earlier - Experimentalism Otherwise: the New York Avant Garde and its Limits- appeared in  2011 in the University of California’s imprint; his HC book is from Duke University Press. I should have been forewarned and forearmed by the price of Bernard Gendron’s Chicago Uni Press publication Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club: Popular Music and the Avant Garde (another prolix title among many others in the academic field): a 222-word paperback costing £25 (weighty title, weighty cost?). Sure enough, when I enquired at our local Waterstone’s in Crouch End, Henry Cow: the World is  Problem also cost £25 in paperback and £120 in hardback. At this point, I backed out. I’m not that into early 70s leftfield music.

Now, I realise that academic books tend to cost more (look at the cost of art books), but this does seem rather excessive. The guy behind the counter thought that it might be a print-on-demand service, in the expectation that sales might be minimal. Academic books also tend to be of high design quality, and I know from experience that printing costs can be very high (my own books cost me around £8 each to print), but it does seem a shame that sales are liable to be even lower because of these sort of prices. On a more positive note, it does seem that the ‘Kindle Revolution’ has stalled, and people do seem to be reading hard copy still. On the tube, I do see many folk reading actual books (although far more are reading their electronic devices). Certainly, all three of my kids read hard copy books, and have bypassed Kindle entirely. 

So there is cause for optimism here, as regards the printed word, even though books, especially hardbacks) do seem prohibitively expensive for many potential readers.

There were these Five Blokes in a Club...

“Age cannot wither them, nor custom stale…” to paraphrase The Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon. This famous quote from ‘Anthony & Cleopatra’ came into my mind whilst reflecting on a packed-to-the-rafters Cafe Oto gig last night. Once I got home, I couldn’t help comparing the 79 year old South African percussionist Louis Moholo-Moholo, leader and inspiration for last night’s Five Blokes quintet (a very English name for a band, reminiscent of several tongue-in-cheek free improv configurations from earlier decades) to another incredible percussionist, Max Roach. I caught the latter,at the age of 75, in duo with Cecil Taylor, almost exactly 20 years ago, in January 1999 at the Barbican Hall.The two events went to demonstrate the truth of Shakespeare’s words.

To paraphrase another Shakespeare adage (from ‘Hamlet’) - “Frailty, thy name is Age”. This was the first impression that both septuagenarians suggested to me as they both were escorted to the stages of these very different venues. I was rather taken aback at how much frailer Moholo has become since I last saw him live, about five years ago. He has lost a considerable amount of weight, for a start. Roach had made his way using walking sticks, and took about five minutes to get to his modest drum kit, across the Barbican’s sizeable stage. However, once the two old campaigners, incalculably important figures in the music’s history, had sat themselves down on their respective stools, they were transformed into percussive powerhouses.

Lat night’s concert was a triumph for the Blokes and for Moholo in particular. He is truly like a micro-surgeon of the beat, facially impassive while laying down an imperturbable undertow for his fellow-members of this free bop ‘supergroup’. Just typing out their names reminds us of what a fantastic band this is -pianist Alexander Hawkins, another completely un-showy and modest master of his instrument, another vital part of the undertow, as is England’s greatest jazz bass improviser, John Edwards; and the front line saxophonists du jour, Shabaka Hutchings and Jason Yarde, the former staying mostly on tenor, with a bit of  bass clarinet, with some ‘little instruments’ thrown in, the latter on soprano, alto and tenor, with a bit of singing and general rabble-rousing on top. I know that comparisons are invidious, but we were taken through early New Orleans funeral marches to Albert Ayler pyrotechnics, through kwela rhythms and some driving Mingus-type arrangements to some Art Ensemble moves and Sun Ra-ishly joyous themes. In fact, the ‘sound of joy’ just about sums these five blokes up, with plenty of extended jams on ostinatos and vamps, and the audience lapping it all up. There were even a few of ‘em dancing, not a sight I’ve seen very often at this sometimes rather serious venue.

In the end, they deservedly got a rousing ovation, but the rest of the band, and the audience, saved the most vociferous applause for the nearly-80 year old master percussionist, who first came over to these shores nearly 55 years ago, escaping apartheid, then at its height . This mixed-race band is only the latest continuation of his work with The Blue Notes, the group which were persecuted in their homeland for precisely the fact that white and black are capable of creating such positive and optimistic music. We certainly need some optimism at the moment, given the current challenges that democracy faces in our own country, the proposed proroguing of parliament being only one.

Thomas Leer and Robert Rental and the Origins of Electro-Punk

My own mental algorithms bear me inexorably back to the modest, yet important, work of two of the  pioneers of DIY electronic post-punk, Glaswegians Thomas Leer and the late (died 2000, of lung cancer) Robert Rental (Robert Donnachie). These founding fathers moved to London at the height of punk, their leather jackets in full evidence, and hauled their cassette machines, effects pedals, guitars and electric bass and primitive synthesisers into their north London bedsits, and produced some of the most memorable music from that most memorable of periods (1978-80). It is said that Rental introduced both Chris Carter and Whitehouse’s William Bennett to the EDP synthesiser. He met Daniel Miller (The Normal at that time) at a Throbbing Gristle gig, which kick-started another connection - Rental went on to make a mini-album with Miller (on Rough Trade) and a single on the latter’s newly-formed Mute Records, both in 1980. He and Leer released the joint album The Bridge in 1979 on the Gristle’s Industrial Records (IR0007). It was a very close-knit scene,

Leer made Private Plane/International and Rental created Paralysis/ACC in 1978, and both were era-defining, in that they were completely independently produced in small amounts (Private Plane emerged in a batch of 650), with self-designed, photocopied and hand-stamped sleeves, and on their own, twinned labels. Leer had Oblique Records and Rental had Regular Records (a parallel to Frank Zappa and Herb Cohen’s ‘opposition’ of Bizarre and Straight Records in the late 60s perhaps?). At the time, these felt like genuine messages from the front line, a combination of ‘regular’ punk, through distorted ‘normal’ instruments and the more ‘oblique’ sounds of cheap (ish) analogue keyboards, which, particularly in Rental’s case, made for a cut-up Burroughs-ian sound field (William S, being the key literary influence, along with Ballard, of experimental post-punk.) Like the other members of the ’canonical six’, these sharp shocks to the system were, at least initially, also very short, and delivered in vinyl-single form. They both remain utterly of their time and yet timeless at the same ‘time’.

The unforgettably-titled Robert Rental and The  Normal Live at West Runton Pavilion remains my personal favourite product of these brief moments of artistic collaboration, a one-sided, 25 minute ‘electro-punk symphony in six parts’ (my title) and sounds like a partly-written, mostly-improvised juggernaut of analogue keyboard mischief and mayhem. The background audience noise is priceless as an aural enhancer to the whole experience. The Bridge stays closer to the ‘punk’ side, rather than the ‘post’’, and is a curate’s egg, but does feature the opening two onslaughts, the brattish Attack/Decay and Monochrome Day, which gave the Cabaret Voltaire of Nag, Nag, Nag and Silent Command a run for their money, We had to wait for nigh-on a mere forty years, for the eventual release of early Leer tracks on 2017′s 1979, to hear the cousins of these electronic-thrash numbers, on numbers like Semi-Detatched Suicide. It was an absolute delight to finally hear this hardly-rushed release. Crouch End (a tribute to the north London patch where his early material was made), on the other hand, sounds more like Boards of Canada. Leer might have garnered more kudos if this stuff had been released when it should have been?

 Leer went on to become a minor electro-pop figure in the 1980′s (but was soon dwarfed by the likes of Soft Cell, Depeche Mode and The Human League) and even attained the upper reaches of the (indie) charts with All About You  (number 11) and the double 12-inch mini-LP, Contradictions (number 8), both in 1982, and he’s still musically active and hopefully well, at the age of 66. But he and Robert Rental will be surely best remembered principally for their innovative role in the first couple of years of post-punk, at the inception of a genuine ‘movement’ (as opposed to stand-alone’s) which genuinely popularised electronic music.

Early Electronic (Synth)Pop -Part the Second

After the ‘Canonical Six’, the electronic flood gates slowly began to open in 1979, the landmark British album of that year being the highly commercially successful Replicas by Tubeway Army. the second release by a duo who rapidly slimmed down to just Gary Numan himself. However influenced it was by David Bowie and Kraftwerk, Replicas remains an integrated, coherent and highly individual statement by a musician who has been unfairly maligned by the music press and fashionistas in general. The Human League followed Being Boiled and The Dignity of Labour (7″ and 12″ respectively) with their first album Reproduction, with Travelogue in 1980 and finally the massively popular, epoch-defining Dare in the following year, which cemented electronic pop in the public (and the record companies) mind as the ‘futuristic’ way forward for the music.

A duo who started off with a 1979 Factory single Electricity (first as FAC 6, and eventually released two further times), released their first full-length disc in February 1980, and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark duly became far too huge to retain their brief cult status. Many other small scale (in size) groups hit pay dirt over those years of 1979 - 1982:  Ultravox, John Foxx, Visage, Soft Cell, Depeche Mode. Germany took up the Kraftwerk mantle, and increased it’s critical stock, with DAF (their debut single, the great Kebabtraume came out on Mute Records), Der Plan, Einsturzende Neubaten - these acts linked up more, however, with the more avant-garde, experimental likes  of Cabaret Voltaire and Jim Thirlwell’s various Foetus incarnations. Interestingly, these two types sometimes overlapped and integrated - for example, Cabaret Voltaire ‘softened’ their approach over time, becoming more dance-friendly, to the point of having a minor hit with 1984′s funky Sensoria. Soft Cell and Depeche Mode retained their ‘edge’ over time, but managed to be huge unit-shifters, especially the latter, who have managed to hold the respect of both pop kids and their hipper older siblings.

Books have been written about the ‘second wave industrial’ bands (the first being our 1978 series of 7-inchers described in the last blog) - Charles Neal’s very early (1987) ‘Tape Delay’, Simon Ford’s biography of Throbbing Gristle, ‘Wreckers of Civilisation’ and, to repeat, Simon Reynolds’ ‘Rip It Up and Start Again’, which covers both wings of electronic popular music suggested above, the commercial and the not-so commercial. By 1984, the concluding year of Reynolds’ narrative, the ‘electronic’ genre has split into many and various sub-’scenes’: the ‘Mutant Disco’ manifestations on the Ze label in America (WasNotWas, etc); the ‘Hidden Reverse’ bands discussed by David Keenan in his book on Coil, Current 93 and Nurse With Wound; the developments in the clubs of Chicago, New York and Detroit, that would influence the ‘leisure activities’ of hundreds of thousands of young people all over the world.

I have always held the period of 1978-1982 in particularly high affection for many personal reasons, and for the music produced in popular music over those few years. Mark E.Smith, an important contributor to this treasure trove of innovations, described a plethora of “miserable songs synthesised”, on The Fall’s 1980 album Grotesque. There is some truth in this, of course, but the incredible number of recordings 7″ format, many of the beautifully presented in picture sleeves, did put some fun into it all (even if it was at times a rather po-faced scene), and it’s great to see that the electronica of those times has a distant relative in the music and presentation (mostly through an exemplary series of 10″ and 12″ singles) of today’s William Bevan, aka Burial. Here is the true keeper of the flame. of Thomas Leer and Robert Rental and The Normal?

Early electronic (synth)pop - a tribute. Part the First.

Writing my last blog on 90s electronica a few days ago inevitably bought me back to one of the genre’s predecessors, that peculiar explosion of ‘avant stars on 45′, from the years of 1978-82. Yes, I know that there were predecessors to these predecessors - wags often cite 1971′s Chirpy, Chirpy, Cheep, Cheep by the knowingly titled Middle of the Road as the first pop hit to be led by the synthesiser, the Roxy Music of Virginia Plain and Georgio Moroder’s work with the likes of Donna Summer on Love to Love You Baby and I Feel Love, and I’m sure that y’all out there can think of others, but there is a particular group of adventurous young electronic pioneers that gave us a series of highly unusual 45 rpm singles in the summer of 1978 whom I wish to celebrate in this blog. The fact that they all chose to use the 7″ format is a refection both of it’s importance in the punk and the post-punk period (approximately 1977 - 82) and how so many artists rose to the challenge of such a ‘restrictive’ presentation for their work.

The marvellous triple CD set on Ohm Records, The Early Pioneers of Electronic Music 1948-1980, ended with a nod to Brian Eno, with a track from On Land from the latter year. The discs are very much a tribute to the ‘straight’ side of electronic experimentation, featuring most of the canon of ‘contemporary classical’ beasts - Stockhausen, Dockstader, Babbitt, Oliveros, Xenakis, Ashley, Lucier, etc, - and is a must-have for it’s pulling together of so much essential modernist material, but Simon Reynolds, in his peerless ‘Rip It Up and Start Again’, did indeed make a new start, by describing a new sub-set of very young British groups and individuals who were combining electronic sounds and ‘pop’ elements into a new ‘pop’ format. As Simon put it, “in mid-1978, a curious spate of cultural synchrony meant that Warn Leatherette [by The Normal aka Mute’s Daniel Miller] appeared around the same time as several other lo-fi electronic singles, all released on indie labels” (page 99). I still remember the joy I felt at the time of the book’s publication, in 2005, that a significant music writer had finally recognised, in print, this indeed “curious spate” of incredibly unusual singles by a bunch of unknown, mostly provincial, groups. Being there at the time, I recall that, over two to three months, there seemed to about one release per week, and it is surely a series that deserves to be remembered and celebrated, forty or so years after. the main event.

I’ve decided to call this set of fantastic singles ‘The Canonical Six’. Although there were other great electronic’ pop- singles to come, these deserve grouping together, as Reynolds eventually did, as a nonpareil of DIY independence and ground-laying. So here they are, in no particular order:

Robert Rental and Paralysis/ACC. An album’s worth of material on a 7″, it remains an unprecedented achievement and would need an entire blog by itself to give it any justice. Now a forgotten figure, which is criminal.

Thomas Leer’s Private Plain/International. A mate of Rental’s, Leer’s first single is a companion piece to his. An ‘indie’ landmark, it is incredibly atmospheric, recorded in his Crouch End bedsit, the whispered vocals necessitated to the need to not awake his sleeping girlfriend, who was working in the morning.

Cabaret Voltaire’s EP, Extended Play. Another album-in-a-single, this (together with the first Factory record, A Factory Sampler) introduced most of us outside Manchester to the Cabs’ long career. The latter EP also made us aware of the potential of Joy Division.

The Human League’s Being Boiled was the calling card of one of the most important electronica acts of them all, and was like nothing else we had heard at the time.

Throbbing Gristle’s United/Zyklon B Zombie on Industrial Records (what the hell was that?) led us a bit up the garden path, with it’s pastoral hues on the first track. The ‘sick’ (in both senses of the word?) ‘B’ side was ultimately a more accurate glimpse of their schtick.

The Normal’s Warm Leatherette/TV OD was a Ballard miniature, back when Ballard was far from well-known. It’s auteur, Daniel Miller, made the record ‘single’-handedly in his Temple Fortune attic, in a similar fashion to Leer’s achievement. Miller went on to become one of the most influential figures of them all, with his Mute Label giving many of the pop electronica crowd their initial shots at fame.

To be continued...

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Banner and book cover photo credit: Jak Kilby