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Compilations - A Dying Art?

This piece is occasioned by the appearance, in the latest (November 2019) edition of Wire, of the fifty first ‘Wire Tapper’, a compact disc given away on a regular basis with the magazine and which usually contains around twenty tracks by usually pretty obscure ‘experimental’ artists and bands. Out of this month’s twenty, for example, I’ve only heard of three, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Stephen Mallinder and Hieroglyphic Being (I consider myself fairly well informed about music, so it’s usually embarrassing to be proved to be so ignorant!) and often it is even less than this. Generally the Tappers are very much a curate’s egg, and often I just can’t be bothered to wade through eighty-odd minutes of ‘filler’ to sort the wheat from the chaff, but this month’s Tapper really is jolly good, exceptionally so, in fact, so it got me thinking about the history of compilations in rock music across the past five decades or so, and how the format is, arguably, virtually moribund in today’s digital world of ‘adventures in sound and music’.

In my history of such things, rock compilations really started in the late sixties, when record labels, both large and small, decided to take advantage of the burgeoning long player format, and of the ‘underground music scene’ in general, by putting out collections of single, representative tracks of their artists, usually at a cut price rate. For young listeners like myself, these cheap prices were very tempting indeed, and several near-classic products came out of this basic grab bag of the good, the bad and the plain indifferent (and there was a lot of the latter quality, I can assure you). Two examples that I availed myself of, and enjoyed for several months thereafter, were Island Records’ Bumpers, and CBS’s Fill Your Head With Rock, both double albums with striking covers and with generally a very high quality quotient. There were several others, that listeners of a certain vintage will be able to recall with affection, I’m sure. The Harvest Bag, You Can All Join In, The Vertigo Annual...This period ended when the counterculture went ‘overground’ with the likes of Bowie and Roxy Music, in and around 1972. The importance of record labels as a defining factor in a band’s presentation went dormant for a few years, until punk and Rough Trade bought it back with a vengeance.

The ‘Second Age’, as I will call it, is in many ways defined by the popular introduction of the cassette tape, from about 1975 onward (’your cassette pet’, as Malcolm McLaren would have it). This cheap and cheerful technology enabled the average fan to record 30/60/90/120 minutes of music on it’s two-sided format, and thus could potentiate a very handy, bespoke, gift for family, friends and, crucially, for people that you fancied. It provided ’the personal touch’, as it were, which had the added bonus of showing how ‘in touch’ you were (or at least aspired to be, in those days when music provided one of the biggest signifiers of personal style). You generally made the tapes up yourself, but the ‘independents caught up, at the cusp of the decade, the most famous of which was Rough Trade, whose C81 could be bought for a couple of quid through the New Musical Express, then perhaps at its most popular and influential. C81 was essentially a ‘post-punk’ compilation, and ‘every hip home had one’ in 1981. I’m listening to C81 as I write this, and am reminded as to how good most of the tracks still are. Cherry Red’s 1982 compilation Pillows and Prayers is another gem from that time. 

The early eighties also saw compilations that celebrated the previous generation’s mavericks - Julian Copes’ Scott Walker tribute Fire Escape in the Sky, and various records, by labels such Bam Caruso, celebrating sixties psychedelia, in the wake of Lenny Kaye’s epochal Nuggets. All these were as much organic collections as were the latest ‘waxing’ by the likes of U2 or ABC. I certainly listen to Chocolate Soup for Diabetics as much as I do to The Lexicon of Love (which, I know, says as much about me as about the discs concerned).


To be continued

Zonal: true ‘trip hop’?

Listening to the new disc by Zonal, the duo of Kevin Martin and Justin Broadrick, took me back to 1994/5, a period where these two were giving us some great records in the form of Martin’s Ice and Techno Animal and Broadrick’s Scorn incarnations. Martin was then also curating Virgin’s long-deleted ‘Ambient’ series, with such compilations as the influential Isolationism and Macro-Dub Infection Volume 1, both of which shared the same artwork as that which graced the projects mentioned earlier, thus giving this ‘scene’, such as it was and still is, a sense of commonality and shared vision. The music that these, and other bands, such as God, Godflesh and Main, produced was a mix of experimental dub, ambient drone, metal, rock and electronica, which some critics sought to collect under  the umbrella term of Simon Reynolds’s ‘post rock’, but I’ve always thought that these groups, with their distorto-dub, bass-heavy, oppressive and disorientating atmospheres, always sat better under the  ‘trip hop’ label, the then-contemporary sound of, most famously, Bristol’s Massive Attack/Tricky and Portishead. Whatever one calls it, it made a welcome change to all the Brit Pop hype of the time.  

The Macro-Dub notes quoted Ian Penman assertion that “People get warped by dub and reggae, and they never recover”. Certainly, John Lydon and Public Image Ltd. never did, and the influence of Metal Box still looms large over these recordings, and over Zonal’s Wrecked, whose title is somewhat of a spoiler, concerning its contents The first six tracks feature Philadelphia singer and poet, Moor Mother, and I love their sheer heaviosity, to put it crudely - those familiar with Martin’s recordings as Ice, God, Techno Animal, The Bug and King Midas Sound, and Broadrick’s with  Godflesh and Scorn will know exactly what to expect. It’s music for the solar plexus, and can leave you metaphorically winded. 

The one problem for me, however is in the lyrics, which mainly consist of paranoid drawls/rants about the military/industrial complex (as it used to be known), or, more simply, ‘The Man’. I am very much reminded of the late-nineties Primal Scream, whose Vanishing Point, Exterminator! and Evil Heat all displayed Bobby Gillespie’s inner world of sixties counter cultural conspiracy theories, with Burroughs-ian and Ballard-ian tropes in full effect. Now, I love these three records, with their input from such production wizards as Kevin Shields, but the adolescent words did drag the whole project down a notch for me. 

The lyrics to Wrecked’s ‘In A Cage’, ‘System Error’ and ‘Medulla’ (very telling titles!) are particularly asinine - “the system is rotten…we are forgotten” and “they want me dead, motherfuckers…like I got a bounty on my head”. These sound ridiculous coming from men in their fifties, to be frank, with their persecutory,‘outlaw’ fantasies and fixations (they even give mention  of‘Babylon’, ffs, rocketing me back to the days of The Clash, The Slits and The Pop Group, and not in a good way). The record drastically improves once they have got all this out of their systems, and the rest of the album is mostly instrumental, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, even hearing echoes of ‘electric Miles’, a sound which remains a touchstone for many of these experimental rock groups; “heavy, expressive and uncompromising” as November’s Wire would have it.

The Long Shadow of Punk -Spirit’s ‘Future Games’: Third Part of Three

And so, on to Spirit and Future Games: A Magical-’Kahauna Dream, it’s lysergic title being a bit of a spoiler as to the contents within this single disc. A few words on Spirit are probably relevant here, in terms of context - they were a West Coast group (from L.A.) who didn’t really fit in with their psychedelic contemporaries, being somewhat jazzy in their sound and without a particular ‘image’ or an ‘angle’ to sell themselves with (the closest they got to thistheir  was in the fact of having a bald, middle-aged drummer, Ed Cassidy, a jazz musician who was teenage guitarist Randy California’s stepfather). Their history is really divided into two very different configurations and periods: the 1967-1970 group was a democratic quintet, that of 1974-79 was basically a vehicle for California, still aided and abetted by Cassidy the former writing most of the songs and acting very much as the visual focus for the band. Spirit 1 produced a quartet of period classics, the last of which, Twelve Dreams of Doctor Sardonicus, is now acknowledged as one of the very best rock albums. It seems that California’s desire to be in charge (he still hadn’t yet even hit 20) led to the breakup of this incarnation of the band. A disasterous one-off reformation a few years later only reinforced their incompatability, and California’s control-freakery.

Spirit 2 also produced four albums of note, including the one under review, which was preceded by Spirit of ‘76, Son of Spirit and Further Along, all of which are mostly forgotten now. This is unfortunate, as they were all interesting, especially Spirit of ‘76, a double album which only reached No.147 in the American charts, despite receiving some FM radio airplay. It probably suffered from under-promotion, again perhaps related to problems with ‘image’ (or lack of), and to the fact that the second band bore very little relation to Spirit 1. In particular, Spirit 2 was clearly a psychedelic guitar band, with Califormia adapting a Hendrix ‘look’ and sound, at a time when this sort of music was becoming terminally unfashionable, before being put out of it’s misery for a couple of decades by punk attitudes and culture. Future Games was different, however, and reflected, probably unconsciously, a tighter, leaner approach to strong structure, while still keeping the hippie flag flying by it’s whacked-out conceptual adventurousness

For a start, the songs were very short and there were 22 of ‘em, eight more than there were on the first two Ramones albums! The longest is a version of Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower (famously covered, of course, ten years earlier, by Hendrix himself), which only clocks in a three minutes or so. This put them into the realm of later minimalist bands such as Guided By Voices and The Minutemen. What marked the album out at the time, however, was it’s arch conceptual nature, with it’s narrative being fractured and broken up by bursts of random noise, CB radio (anyone old enough to remember that?) and, in particular, fragments of the Star Trek TV (remember that 1977 was also the year that saw the release of the first, era-defining Star Wars movie). These segments tend to be eerie and surreal, with the voices of Kirk, Spock, Bones, etc, several featuring expressions of concern over Jim Kirk losing his mind after a visit to a dodgy planet. They are disorientating and somewhat disturbing (”your reality is slipping…as California sings on Buried in my Brain, and were very unusual production techniques for the time. Other inserts seem to be from selected from hammy old Hollywood horror movies from the 30s and 40s. It wouldn’t be too much to suggest that this album is an early example of ‘sampling’, using analogue technology of course. It certainly disconcerted the old hippies of my contemporary acquaintances

Paul Lester, in his Guardian re-review on 05/03/13 described Future Games as the “first collage pop album…released in early 1977, it was incredibly punk”. That’s certainly how it felt at the time - it was somewhat Janus-faced, looking forward to punk brevity and a fascination with popular cultural artefacts, and backwards to the glowing psychedelic haze of Hendix-influenced sci-fi lullabies (the Jimi of Bold As Love, 3rd, Stone From the Sun and 1983). It is one of my dearest musicological wishes to see both this and Good-Bye Pop receive their proper due, as “punk music by non-punks”.

An Advance Warning of Punk; Part Two. National Lampoon’s “Good bye Pop”

Good-bye Pop 1952 -1976 was recorded in 1975 and released in America in January 1976. The National Lampoon team, along with the now mostly-forgotten Firesign Theatre were two of the most well regarded early/mid 1970s counter-culture satirists of the American scene who used the recording medium. Personally, I found the Firesign Theatre to be about as tedious as Cheech and Chong even back then, but the Lampoon, especially Good-bye Pop, still sound largely as funny in 2019 (with a few obviously dated tropes that are eminently forgivable, somewhat like Monty Python?)  It is impossible to relate all the micro-references on this record (one apparently has over twenty musical pastiches), but so many are eerily prescient of subsequent developments in the rock/pop since the time that it was recorded. For our purposes here though, this forwards-thinking is in relation to the soon-come punk ‘revolution’, with it’s well-documented denigration of self-importance and grandiosity in all it’s many and varied forms. The album is more uncannily accurate and’ on the ball’ as to the next phase of the music than any other recording that I can think of from 1975 (some will argue for Horses, but that was essentially an art house album mainly concerned with it’s author’s inner world).

There should really be a dissertation or three on Good-bye Pop, given the amount of ‘asides’ and musical footnotes that there are on show here, about the parlous state of pop/rock music in 1975. It is tempting to discuss it track by track, but that would be inappropriate in such a format of this, but the best recommendation that I can make is that this record  is is the most obvious precursor to the classic ‘mockumentary’ This Is Spinal Tap. Yes, it’s that good, largely thanks to the overall input of Christopher Guest, who later landed his ultimate dream role, as Nigel Tufnel in Tap. He’d already had considerable parody experience, on The National Lampoon Radio, developing, among others, the Good-bye Pop characters of sleazy coke-head record rep Ron Fields, and the oleaginous English ethno-musicologist Roger de Swans. He then worked with Chevy Chase and John Belushi, well before Saturday Night Live, and before creating the immortally moronic Tufnel. He is accompanied on this record by the Bill Murray, who is magnificent in the part of the dozy, somewhat Bob-Harris-like, late night FM DJ Mel Brewer, and other Lampoon regulars such as Tony Scheuren, Gilda Radner and Paul Shaffer. This was still at a time when iconoclastic digs at the by then- established rock tropes was in its infancy. Nik Cohn’s Awopbopaloobopalopbamboom and Rock Dreams were among the first stirrings of the gradual puncturing of the Rolling Stone-type mythologising of the pantheon of “both rock and roll”.

A few of the many, many highlights of this record are: the foreseeing of the post-  Beatles obsession and historicisation of the Fab Four, by a quaaluded Flash Bazbo (played by Guest); the cruel- yet - fair, musically precise evisceration of Prog Rock (The Art Rock Suite, written by the Sid Vicious soundalike Sid Gormless and his band, The Dog’s Breakfast, a year before anyone had heard of that particular doomed junkie); the country rock spoof Clap (Is Just the B–Side of Love), which is as Zappa-like as America Drinks and Goes Home; the Neil Young parody Southern California Brings Me Down (which completely nails the grossly sexist side of the Young of Harvest and of hippie culture in general); Bob Dylan ‘going reggae’, much to Albert Grossman’s consternation. It all only strikes a slightly discordant note for the modern listener when Gilda Radner perform’s her painful I’m a Woman to the ridicule of  various studio hangers-on (this was some years before the late 70s disco divas laid down such immortals as Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive). Radner’s petulance and the studio hack’s patronising put downs (Bill Murray plays her emollient husband) probably won’t sit that well with modern progressive thinking, although it still remains essentially a criticism of eternal pomposity and self-importance (musically coordinated, as is much of the album, by the great Paul Shaffer)

There is so much more to say about this Cassandra of an album. Check it out on YouTube, which has it in its entirety (but without the lyric sheet, which I’m am still  in proud possession of. Never mind, the lyrics are eminently clear on the recording, and what lyrics they are, deserving of as much quoting as those that appear on This Is Spinal Tap.

An Advance Warning of Punk in 1975, and a Hippy Curiosity from 1977 itself. Probably a Three-Parter.

I was 22 years old in 1977, the year that Punk broke into the cultural mainstream and it’s media, and too old to be anything other than an interested, but passionately supportive, observer. Naturally, my love of challenging and questioning music led me into many of the records that punk produced, which mainly involvedfirst listening and seeing bands that benefited from the attitudes and ethos of punk, but were hardly ‘punk in excelsis’ - bands like Television, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, The Stranglers, Blondie. The only ‘punk’ band that I truly liked were the Pistols, with their epochal four singles (who I only saw once, on their final tour of England, in December 1977, by which time the whole thing was a complete circus/freak show), I could take or leave The Clash and The Damned: I was far too much of a post-hippie to fall for the legion of imitators of limited imagination and/or musicianship. For me, punk’s real flowering in rock music occurred in the ‘post-punk’/new wave period, and any readers will know that I prefer the 1978-81 period to almost any other in the music’s 65-year history. classically

So this sets the scene. In late 1976/early 1977, I was living in a classically student run-down communal house in the small West Midlands town of Kenilworth. Very little had been released at that time that could remotedly be called ‘punk music’ Patti Smith’s Horses (never a personal favourite, I’m afraid) and the first Ramones album represented the advance guard . The British contingent had to wait until February for Damned, Damned, Damned and the spring to see the release of The Clash and Rattus Norvegicus, After this came the deluge of the good, the bad and the terminally indifferent, the latter being by far the largest. But things were changing with the first TV appearance of the Pistols in September 1976 - a lot of us had been listening to what was later labelled ‘pub rock’, in particular the likes of Graham Parker & the Rumour, Dr. Feelgood and Eddie and the Hot Rods, who were all great live, a bit ragged but ‘honest’ in the eyes of folks who were fed up with the flaccid products of the major labels in 1974, 1975 and 1976. A sign of these changes sometimes came in odd and unexpected forms, and it is two of these that I want to talk about; firstly because they are wonderful records in themselves, and secondly because they were obscure at the time and have been pretty much forgotten now.. Look them up on YouTube for proof of this; they have a few admirers, but their paucity is their main feature. This pair haven’t even benefited from the cold comfort of being given ‘cult’ status, so here is my attempt to give them the credit that they deserve, even if it’s over 40 years too late. But they were a part of the punk story, even if they don’t feature Jon Savage’s classic tome on the subject.

The two albums are: National Lampoon’s Good-Bye Pop (1952-1976) and Future Games: A Magical Kahauna Dream by Spirit. The Lampoon came out (I think) in 1975, on Epic Records, and, as far as I know, was never available here except in ‘import’ form (import albums were very hip for the 1970s serious record buyer). My copy has the typically thick cardboard cover, but the vinyl inside was already by now post-’OPEC Crisis’ thin and ‘wobbly’. I first heard the Spirit as an import in early ‘77, but it gained a UK release on Mercury Records later that year (which also put out Pere Ubu’s The Modern Dance in the following year, in addition to being Graham Parker’s label, so deserves full credit from later generations of listeners of great music)

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