Parker Burwell Toop credit Jak Kilby


Thurston Moore: An Appreciation

What a rock and roll name!! Almost equaled by Lee Renaldo, Kim Gordon and Steve Shelley (and even Bob Bert)?  I loved Sonic Youth, from around 1986 and Evol onward, but enough has been written about this group (two full-length books so far), without me adding my gushing words of admiration to an already full comment box. What I want to do briefly here is give a personal account of what Thurston Moore, in particular, means to me. With SY now passed, it would have been pretty standard fare for me to have parted company with TM, but it was not to be, I’m very glad to say.

He seems hot property at the moment - there was  Radio 6 program about him yesterday, and this month’s Wire reviewed a book about him, called Thurston Moore: We Sing A new Language, published by Omnibus Press, which I have ordered and eagerly await. As many people know. Moore is an avid free improv scenester, and has a literary imprint called Ecstatic Peace, which released the mammoth MUSICS omnibus last year. So Ecstatic Peace was what I thought about trying, when I published my first book back in May 2015, and I accordingly sent Moore a copy. This was very early on, before any reviews or comments had come in, so I was very nervous about its reception, particularly by the free improv community itself, and the first reaction quickly came from Moore himself, via e-mail initially and then through his fanzine The Bull Tongue Review.  I’m happy to say that the response was probably more than I dared hope for. His comments were kind and enthusiastic and encouraging, and it really settled my nerves and my self-doubt, an important milestone in my writing career, without a doubt. I owe him an eternal debt of gratitude for this.

I ran into him on several occasions in a short time at gigs (two that come to mind are Martin Carthy at The Vortex and the Terry Day evening at Cafe Oto). I also walked into Bermondsey’s White Cube Gallery, and there was TM and a group playing a ‘chamber drone’ sort of piece with a string-driven band. Even more bizarrely, I ran into this 6′ 5′’ giant in Dunn’s Bakery in Crouch End (next door to the studios there), a curiously homely venue to come across this exponent of the weird and wonderful. He was great, very friendly and down-to-earth, and gave me a copy of The Bull Tongue Review that featured my book. Needless to say, I was chuffed beyond belief, and felt about 14 again. He has also been very supportive around my new book, and seems to have inexhaustible enthusiasm for all aspects and manifestations of experimental music, which is the impression he has always given, to be fair. I can tell you that it’s true.

Moore moved to London a few years ago, Stoke Newington to be exact, in the fall-out from the demise both of Sonic Youth and his relationship with Kim Gordon, who produced her own account of the split in her autobiography last year. He has now become a fixture of the improv circuit here in London and beyond. I can bear witness, as if it were needed, to his continuing support and encouragement of the DIY movement, of which my books are a very small part. Support from figures like himself can mean a lot to people in my position, in the general absence of other extrinsic reinforcement (such as money, for example!). It’s good to have someone like Moore here in person, and I only hope that he decides to stay in our troubled island. He is a true mensch.

One important aspect of vinyl - track order

What prompted this particular blog was my listening to Jethro Tull’s second LP, Stand Up. I am particularly fond of Side Two, Track Three, entitled We Used To Know, which features some scorching guitar playing from the band’s then-new member, my first cousin, Martin Barre. I’ve loved this rather mournful rock-out ever since I first heard it, when Martin gave a  copy to the 14-year old version of me.

Now, this isn’t going to be about how I have rediscovered my 14-year-old inner prog rock self (even though the genre appears to have regained some cachet over the past few years). No, what prompted this latest outpouring was the whole notion of Side One, Track Three itself, and its companions, from Side One, Track One onward. Why relegate the strongest number (imho) to the matrical dead zone of the middle of the second side? Not that it matters in these days of self-programming, but it did make me think about the art of track sequencing, whether done by the artist(s), producer, manager or whoever. Is it a moribund skill in  modern times? Without this becoming a sort of “most perfect no- filler at all” list of great albums, I must here suggest that there is probably an ur-album Platonic ideal in most older music fan’s minds of what constitutes the perfect album structure in rock/pop music - maybe 5/6 tracks per side, each lasting ¾ minutes (perhaps, as in The Clash and Police & Thieves,, with one track coming in at a much longer duration for added heft?). The total time lasting no more than 45 minutes at the outside.

This vanishing art is highlighted by the phenomenon of the box set compilation/completist document, where tracks are re-sequenced into chronological order, with the accompanying loss of architectonic structure that the original LPs provided - some obvious examples, from the jazz end of things, are the sets of Impulse Coltrane’s, Riverside Monk’s and Atlantic Coleman’s, all superb artifacts in themselves, but we thereby lose the original matrix of such classics as My Favorite Things, Brilliant Corners and The Shape of Jazz to Come. Rock compilations tend to be lazier and less bothered by detail, but the point is well made.

Another contention would be that this art became coarsened in the CD age, by excessive length of albums and tracks therein lasting up to 80 minutes of material. Albums of these sort of lengths will inevitably contain filler. Nowadays when I prime up a CD (yes, I still use ‘em), I inwardly have a sigh of relief when the digital display indicates 45 minutes or under, especially under 40.

But would it have made a better album ultimately, if We Used To Know was Side One, Track Five, the last on that half of the platter? Somehow, I doubt it. Album programmers really knew their stuff in those days.

Nought-y Boy?

Having recently finished David Hepworth’s latest book, Uncommon People: The Rise & Fall of the Rock Stars, I have been thinking about how that narrative can be seen to dovetail quite neatly with my own listening history, as I essentially stopped listening to new rock music at around 2008. This was partly because I was very unwell (needing a liver transplant eventually) and partly because I was in my mid-fifties, and partly because there didn’t seem to be anything new under the sun (at last).  I think that probably the last ‘movement’ in rock music that I seriously listened to was ‘post-rock’ ( as described in a recent blog of mine), from around 1992-8, the last reasonably in-depth listening that I essayed into any rock-based sub-genre. And now this particular genre (if it can indeed be called that) is being historicised (as described in another recent blog of mine), I really am starting to feel like a museum-piece myself.

I tend to write about, and listen to, music of the 60s, 70s and 80s, which is not unusual, I guess, for someone my age (62 and ageing rapidly!).  I ran a record shop from 1978-81 (a great period in this music, one of the very best, imho), and this time tends to, inevitably, form a kind of epi-centre to my listening history, due to my un-repeatably generous access to music at that time. At least it wasn’t 1982-6!!!  However, I sort of “fell asleep” in around 2007 and “woke up” like a sort of Rip Van Winkle, after my successful operation in July 2009.  The main music-related event at that time, for me, was the then-recent opening of Cafe Oto in Dalston, and Oto has been the center of my live gig experiences ever since. Rock has largely fallen to the wayside, and I couldn’t name one contemporary rock band to you if I tried.  The 1975??  My God, what a year to pick!!

I don’t wear this pig-ignorance as a geriatric badge of honour, I have to make clear, as I deeply love rock music. Post-2009, I have managed to discover so-called ;free folk’ (especially Alasdair Roberts) and some grime (the latter largely through my son). I have learned to love Run The Jewels, Burial and Autechre. Apart from that, it tends to be mostly free improv for me nowadays. Hence the books, website and these blogs.

I guess the last stand for me in the rock world was in the mid-00s (hence this blog’s title). Here, I would name check Arcade Fire and The White Stripes (the latter of which I am rediscovering at the moment, part of the reason for this blog) from Canada and America, and our very own Arctic Monkeys, Franz Ferdinand and The Libertines (all of whom were also great live, as I recall) As well as the Stripes, I particularly love(d) The Arctic’s brilliant first album and Ferdinand’s second. I thought that The Strokes were derivative rubbish though, hype incarnate.

Is this how it is for most people as they get older? (only over 40s need to respond here).  And I’m not being lachrymose here - I’m enjoying music at my current age, as much as I ever have. Is the tendency eventually to dwell in one’s own ‘golden age(s) comfort zone’?   I had two musical-listening caesura’s: -  when my children were born/growing up;  and when I was seriously ill. This did mean that I (thankfully) missed ‘rave culture’ (I know, I am seriously showing my age here, but the music was mostly crap, tbh), and the associated club scenes. The thing about Post-Rock was that you could listen to it at home in your slippers, which suited me fine after a day at work and the various child care challenges that were provided daily in my late thirties and throughout my forties. Then this all got a bit easier but then I got ill, rather unfortunately.. 

I was born in 1955 (one of the notional years of rock’s birth). I sometimes wonder if I narrowly avoided being buried in the notional year of rock’s death, in 2009, at the same age as myself?  That would have been even ‘neater’!

Answers to all this nonsense on a piece of A4 at least, please. ROCK ‘N ROLL, 1955-2009. R.I.P. Died at the age of 54. 

Parker’s Mood

A week or so, I exchanged a copy of my new book for one of Evan Parker’s new(ish) CD products - I was given a choice, by the man himself, of a few options, including a very tempting Schlippenbach Trio double-CD. However, I eventually plumped for one that is encrypted PEN, standing for P(arker) E(dwards) N(oble), three English improvisers who need no introduction to those who follow this music. The occasion of this exchange was at a Vortex gig of Parker’s trio, which, on this particular occasion, featured Mark Sanders on the traps.

The CD is presented in an attractive, origami-like fold-out case, on the Dropa-Disk (?) label, coming in at a very economical, two track, 39 minutes, and was recorded in Antwerp in January 2015. It is called PEN, for obvious acrostic reasons. It is also a compound word, representing a group whose whole transcends its parts. The reason that I want to discuss this release, apart from its intrinsic worth, is because there is so little recorded by Parker’s ‘English Trio’ (not the one with Barry Guy and Paul Lytton, which is usually called Parker/Lytton/Guy, to reflect its development from the Parker/Lytton duo from the early 80s).

This ‘other’ trio has consisted of Parker with, over time, percussionists Tony Marsh (sadly now deceased) and Mark Sanders, bassist John Edwards, and (at one time) guitarist John Russell. These configurations have played over the past 20 years at least, but they have very few recordings that represent their tremendous live presence over these years - London Air Lift (actually a quartet with Russell, Edwards and Sanders) on FMP, The Two Seasons (with Edwards and Sanders) on Emanem, and an album on Tzadik (that I have yet to hear). This is a very poor output (for the usually prolific Parker) as regards these wonderful trios.

PEN sounds at times like a 2015 Sonny Rollins Live At The Village Vanguard. This should come as no surprise to seasoned Evan Parker listeners, who will have heard, especially at his longstanding Vortex residency, his trio’s post-free improv language, refreshingly empty of hard bop cliches (themes, choruses, heads, bar-line solos and such), but still suffused with much of the free improv language - extreme registers from all, asymmetric post-Murray drumming, Edwards’s post-Guy master classes, Parker’s passionate squalling - all pulse not strict time. This group does not play abstract music, but one that that is straight-ahead free -bop (if you like), a ‘masters’-channeling supergroup.  I must have now seen Evan Parker 200+ times, John Edwards 100+, Steve Noble maybe 20+. The fact that I can spot this new CD and still feel impelled to grab it, and, even more, really, really enjoy it, says a lot about the sheer continuing creativity of this group of improvisers.

My New Book

My second book is finally out, folks!!  It is, rather pompously, entitled Convergences, Divergences & Affinities: the Second Wave of Free Improvisation in England 1973-1979. I tried to cover a few bases with that title, mainly to cover the amount of changes that the music endured in those 7 brief years, and also the fact that I tried to reflect other parts of England than London, which my first book focused on to the exclusion of anywhere else in the country.

I want to thank here everyone who has bought CD & A. This means an awful lot to me, that people have spent their hard-earned money on a book about an obscure and rather recondite topic. I have been in contact with a lot of great, friendly individuals from Europe, America and even Japan, and they seem to be good people. Cheers, guys, you know who you are.

Without trying to sound like a rap band extolling their mates and family, it is so encouraging to see that there are so many people out there listening to this weird shit.

I’m now cracking on with Book 3, which will be about the London Musicians Collective. I’ve got some heavy-duty competition here, however, as there are others who are producing research on the same topic. This is great as far as I’m concerned - Free Improv, or maybe just Improv (?) by this time, has has relatively so little written about it so far, fifty tears on, let’s drown in it!!  Buckets of material about The Beatles and Dylan (and the generous 60s/70s mother lode generally) continually spew out their riches (or their fool’s gold). And now we have the comedy of Morrisey’s early years of misery in Manchester (a signal example of how much a pushy chancer can bully himself into whatever he deems appropriate to his assumed status-euch!!) - not only does he demand a Penguin Classic sigil, we now have to suffer carefully-crafted sets of his sweaty bedroom in the late 70s. Have we all gone mad(chester)?

Give me a movie about John Stevens, for God’s sake. Please, I will check out I Called Him Morgan at the local flea-less pit, to see a genuinely interesting doomed youth.

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Banner and book cover photo credit: Jak Kilby