Parker Burwell Toop credit Jak Kilby


My Cassette Pets

There is an article in today’s Times, “Why That Trip Down Memory Lane Is Lined With Tapes”, which makes salutary reading for those of us who will never see 60 again. Some researchers (don’t these people have proper jobs?) have come up with a Top 20 list of “things we miss most” in the wake of 21st century technology. It’s certainly an interesting list, although it alarmed me that ‘Buying CDs’ came in at number 9. I still buy the occasional CD and, like many of my age, still like the idea of a non-virtual library, within which one has to shift oneself off one’s backside in order to to pick an item from one’s still- literal shelves. It at least involves some slight movement and thinking, and the use of one’s own algorhythms, rather than one chosen by YouTube or Google.

However, top of the list is ‘Making Mix Tapes’, something which is, again, not strictly moribund, as some underground genres thrive on the cassette format (as featured regularly in Wire magazine’s ‘Unofficial Channels’ section). Now cassettes were always clunky, but seemed a godsend by the mid-70s, when the reel-to-reel format appeared impractical and space-occupying in comparison. ‘Home taping are killing music’ we were all told and all promptly ignored, given how much we were saving. The problems soon became evident when filing - if you were like me, you stuck single tracks (album highlights, for example, and singles) at the end of each 45-minute side of the cassette, which made rapid retrieval a time-consuming pain. Most people ended up with unmanageable mounds of ill-assorted, precariously-labelled, plastic cover-less, difficult-to-store, unattractive tapes which had even less appeal than the soon-to-be-ubiquitous compact disc.

Peak Tape was probably around 1980. I have a few Factory cassettes, which at least made attempts to be different - the ‘art magazine’ compilation made with trendy label of that moment, Les Disques du Cresuscule, called From Brussels With Love, which was achingly up itself but good fun (from late 1980 from what I remember), the transparent green envelope that contained A Certain Ratio’s fantastic live/studio career high, From the Graveyard to the Ballroom, and the 4 x cassette box (the size of a CD boxset) which contained early Durutti Column material. The first of these had the novel idea of having the end of the music on Side One being synchronised, when you turned over the tape, with the beginning of Side Two - thus missing, if you didn’t fancy or inevitably got sick of, the 10-minute interview with Brian Eno at the end and beginning of the respective sides. These, along with the titular BowWowWow single Your Cassette Pet (1981), marked the high water point for cassette culture - they eventually proved too un-sexy, as did compact discs, which led in the end to the return of one item which hasn’t become inoperational, and actually returned from the moribund - vinyl records. Although, from what I can gather, modern vinyl collections tend to be ‘For Viewing Only’, which makes them more like museums than libraries. I’m somewhat reminded of comic collectors who keep their precious product sealed away in airtight bags. At least cassettes were intended to be practical - it’s a shame that the list didn’t include the Walkman.

Check the list out - it’s a real momento mori.

Anni Mirabilii - What’s In A Year?

Having written two books which have clear temporal boundaries - i.e. between 1966 and 1979 - I have been sometimes preoccupied by the significance, real or imagined, of particular years in the history of popular music.  Somehow we seem to have become fixated with the three years of 1965, 1966 and 1967 as the miraculous years, a mid-decade triumvirate that is meant to represent the apogee of achievement in terms of both quantity and quality.

For myself, the years 1978 to 1980 were the three years that I fondly recall for the seemingly never ending amount of outstanding product that unfolded at the time. The so-called ‘Summer of Hate’ (1977) may have been the one of the most interesting year in terms of cultural shift and excitement, with the press as outraged at the behaviour of punks as it had been ten years earlier with that of hippies - both part- and full-time.  However, although I remember it 1977 as being both unsettling and a wake-up call in many ways, in retrospect it didn’t really produce an awful lot of immortal recordings, not surprisingly, as one of the selling points of punk was it’s musical atavism. But the following three years, which were eventually named, rather clumsily,’ post-punk’, bore the full flowering of many of the ideas and ideals of the Blank Generation. Gary Mulholland, author of the very readable This Is Uncool: The Greatest Singles Since Punk and Disco, sees 1979 as the greatest single year in pop history, “the last year in the playground before it was forced to grow up”, an opinion which I happen to share, apart from my view that the music dumbed down rather than matured from that point on.

All this was occasioned by Richard Williams’ latest blog, about 1965, which he fills largely by a list of the myriad fantastic recordings produced that year. Williams cites Jon Savage’s CD retrospectives of the three sixties anni mirabilii, 1965-67, as further proof, if any more was really needed, of how chock full of goodies those years were. Savage himself seems to have made a good living out of both mid-sixties and mid-seventies music, and good luck to him, he is a fine writer. His hefty book on 1965: The Year the Decade Exploded (2015) is highly recommended, as, of course, is his book on (mainly) 1977, London’s Burning, which still remains the definitive book on Punk. I’ve got the box set, Punk & New Wave, 1976-1979, with it’s great ‘badges’ design, but, when I compare this to the absolute mountain of mid-sixties compilations of mod, freakbeat and psychedelia clogging up my shelves, it seems that the post punk diaspora still has some way to go in terms of historical monumentalism.

I was only 10 years old in 1965; by 1977, I was 22, so naturally the later years are more ‘alive’ for me, although I do have clear memories of the pop scene of the mid.late sixties, as it was so inescapable (having an older sibling also helped). It seems that the sixties trio will forever be seen, by critics at least, as the Golden Age. But what about other years? The venerable David Hepworth had a go last year, with plugging the importance of 1972 of all years, but I remain wholly unconvinced by his arguments. Simon Reynolds was much more plausible with his wonderful Rip It Up and Start Again (the period from 1978-84), but I still await somebody else, probably someone much younger, trying to convince us that a particular year, say in the nineties and noughties, bears half as much musical and/or cultural heft as any of those of fifty years ago. I suspect that the contexts in which music is consumed has changed so much in these fifty years that such a competition might be next to impossible.

On Hundred Years Ago...

Unless I have missed something, which is highly likely, as my reading is less than catholic (stretching to regular perusal of The Wire, The Guardian and Prospect), a very significant 100th anniversary passed last year. It may, of course, have featured in the jazz magazines, but I didn’t notice. I am talking about 26th February 2017, which was exactly 100 years to the day from the first ever recording of what we know of jazz music, by The Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB) in New York City in 1917  As significant dates go, it would be pretty hard to find a musically more important one, but it does  seem to have been rather subsumed by.anniversaries from The Great War.

The ODJB were white New Orleans musicians (black trumpeter Freddie Keppard had been offered a studio gig earlier, which would have put him in the history books, but he famously worried that his sound would be stolen if preserved on wax, so he now only occupies footnotes in the great narrative). They were a five-piece for these immortal performances, led by cornet player Nick LaRocca, who did himself no favours in the history books by disavowing any black influences in the music, a patently absurd notion, as even Paul Whiteman acknowledged this overriding factor in the formation of the music. LaRocca was accompanied by clarinet, trombone, piano and drums, the line-up  which was to receive further immortalisation through Louis Armstrong’s Okeh recordings with the Hot Five a decade or so later.

I only came across this topic by chance today whilst persusing some King Oliver stuff in my collection and noticed my ODJB CD, which prompted the penny dropping about the date. In fact, there were only four tracks recorded in (early) 1917. Several more were recorded in 1918, 1920 and 1923, making 23 in all, forming the single CD on Timeless Records, which have been all mastered to an incredibly high standard, given their age, by John R.T.Davies, who is a master at this sort of thing. Listening again to these ancient tunes, the re-mastering has bought them back with a brilliant (in all senses of the word) sound, giving us some idea of how exciting this band must have sounded when they swung by our Hammersmith Palais in 1919.

The tracks are occasionally a bit hokey (as were some of Jelly Roll Morton’s, to be fair), with particular references to death and animals, with their vaudeville antecedents still  on display -but Livery Stable Blues with its barnyard imitations is no more crass to modern ears than Morton’s Sidewalk Blues - and its easy to hear how this music arose from stagecraft and contemporary popular live entertainment, however much this music later turned to higher art forms for its sustenance and growth. We are now in 2018, and I wonder whether there will be any celebration for the 100th anniversary of what was the next great white hope of antediluvian jazz - The New Orleans Rhythm Kings, also worthy of our remembrance, and also available on top notch digital remastering.

Mark E. Smith - In Memoriam

I thought that I would get a few words in, before the inevitable deluge from the likes of Stewart Lee start pouring in, with endless lists of the number of  times seen and number of recordings owned, referring of course to The Fall, whose leader died today. For many of us, this is like the death of Bowie, the last man standing from The Punk Generation who was still largely active and creating good works, despite a year of ill-health in 2017. It’s a coincidence, given that I was writing about Shane MacGowan the other day, in connection with turning 60 years old and still being alive to tell, or rather to mumble incoherently, the tale.

A few random comments about my history with The Fall - there are going to be so many of these over the next week, so I’ll get mine in early:

I only saw them once: Hammersmith Palais, October 1985, on the Nations Saving Grace Tour (at their supposed height). A solid, if essentially unmemorable gig, mainly going down in history for me for the sight of my then-girlfriend, now-wife, fast asleep in the middle of the dance floor. She sometimes has difficulty in sleeping nowadays, incredibly enough.

First contact: buying Rowche Rumble on release in 1979. Never looked back, and The Fall provided me with ten tears of pretty much unbroken high quality music, a run broken only by The Frendz Experiment in 1988. I can’t think of another rock band with such an equivalently lengthy release schedule of incomparable music - Sonic Youth seem to be the only contenders, over roughly the same period of time.

Favourite album/single:  Grotesque/How I Wrote Elastic Man…no, The Weird and Frightening World Of/The Man Whose Head Expanded, no, hang on…this is a ridiculous exercise, there is far too much.

The later Fall - for me, the gradual rot it started after the great Cog Sinsister run, around the time of Middle Class Revolt (1995). The booze really wasn’t helping at this point, although Smiffy seemed to ride it for a lot longer than MacGowan did. I finally bowed out with Re-Mit (2013), although Istill  have at least a half dozen from the 21st.century, which, whilst having the old punkabilly riffage and drive, had lapsed lyrically and vocally (as had the album covers). Smith would sneer, but this long term fan felt that the soul of the group left with Steve Hanley (and perhaps even earlier, with Craig Scalon).

Summary - an incomparable loss, even with the wreckage of his later life and career. The Bowie comparison was not made lightly. Avant rock has lost perhaps its greatest avatar. I’ll never forget the anticipation, throughout the 80s, of getting hold of the latest Fall release, and, with age, have lost that sort of longing. I doubt if any other band will affect me in quite the same way, something in which I am in complete agreement with the late John Peel.

Outsider career opportunities?

Writing about Shane MacGowan  in the last blog (my sincere apologies for misspelling his name on several occasions) got me thinking a bit further about the notion of ‘outsiders’, a notion which first gained currency in the immediate post-war period  (1945-) and was a marker for a couple of generations of artists, musicians and scene-makers generally. After the success of Colin Wilson’s The Outsider in 1956, it was a cachet to achieve ‘outsider status’. Just look at The Rolling Stones, who carved a career from urinating in a public place, and who now feature a knight of the realm on lead vocals. To be ‘out’, there has surely to be an ‘in’ - the standard OED definition states that the outsider can be “an uninitiated person,layman, person without special knowledge, not fit to mix with good society…thought to have no chance in a race or competition”. What is it about modern society that have made such qualities both desirable and admirable in some quarters?  In today’s Trump culture, such a description sounds like that of a ‘loser’, a favourite put-down of Derogatory Donald.

Shane M. is an objective correlative of the paradoxes of this terminology - a supposed gifted poet who has ‘systematically deranged his senses’ (to use a get-out clause invented by the 16-year old Arthur Rimbaud in 1871, to give some sort of gravitas to his laudanum and absinthe excesses, and which consequently gave several future generations of wasters a handy excuse for getting off their tits - ‘systematically’, naturellement). Similarly, the expression ‘drug experimentation’ may be appropriate when referring to Albert Hoffman, but is far less convincing when fans/hangers-on of William Burroughs or Keith Richards try to rationalise their excesses. Part of he 60s and 70s generations tried to make taking drugs out to be a noble, self-negating attempt to ‘explore inner space’, which maybe it was in some cases, but ironically these particular ‘sense derangements’ soon became a sort of norm, once the commercial counterculture got involved, and one more outsider activity had its teeth extracted.

There are some who feel that there are still outsiders operating at the edges (the ‘outsides’?)  of rock music, even today - Stephen Stapleton (Nurse With Wound) and Jandek (not my cup of tea at all), for example, and reading an article in this month’s Wire (February 2018) on the Ceramic Hobs group (who were previously off my radar) demonstrates that the notion is still current, in this instance with regard to the ‘outsider status’ of the mentally ill.  I’m probably a tad defensive here, as I was for many years a mental health nurse or ‘oppressor’ to use a bit of jargon from ‘’psychiatric survivor’-speak.  It still troubles me, even five years after retirement, when I read about Mad Pride, not that such organisations exist (they provide a community often, for people that don’t belong to any), but because they can set up unhelpful (and unwinnable) inescapable basic assumptions of a fundamental conflict between service users and the supposed patiarchy, an updated development of the military-industrial complex, and still featuring the usual father-figure bogeymen. By setting up an ‘enemy’, much psychic energy is frittered away by individuals who are ‘outside’ because they can’t help it, rather than it being part of a career plan. The following is all too typical of the level of debate - “…Recovery In The Bin, a user-led group who see the recovery model are wholly inadequate when people are subject to the crushing pressures of late stage capitalism”. Once SWP language starts being spouted, you know that you are on the road to nowhere, and, more importantly, vague rhetoric starts to replace practical and emotional assistance, which most service users need far more than dialectical materialism.

As I need to end this, I will sign off with the Ceramic Hobs’s Stephen Morris, who seems to want his psychotic cake and to eat it: “..I don’t necessarily think you have to be unstable to be creative but a look at the lives of writers, artists and musicians shows that most of us clearly aren’t quite the full shilling”. This comment really needs a blog to itself, but basically it’s a more right-on update of “you don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps”. Wild Man Fischer is the patron saint of this particular branch of the Outsider Artist Club, rather than Nick Drake Brian Wilson.

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