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Book, Cover, Precipitate Judgement?

I, along with with so many people of my age, came across journalist David Hepworth in the early 80s when he, along with McCartney- lookalike Mark Ellen, co-presented The Old Grey Whistle Test, the first BBC ‘serious’ pop/rock omnibus, which was initially, as I remember, hosted by the very great Richard Williams. Hepworth re-entered my musico-cultural awareness when I found time to read his two (relatively recent) books, 1971- Never A Dull Moment (a title that unfortunately failed to resonate with my memories of that particular year), and Uncommon People - The Rise and Fall of the Pop Stars, a cut-and-paste job concerning the usual Mojo and Uncut magazines pantheon of rock stars and superheroes.

Late last year, and out comes yet another Hepworth Bantam Press release, in the now-standard black and orange cover, a triumph, as far as I was concerned, of form over content, although it is always a pleasure to read sturdy, well-made hardback books, products that are visceral in their provision of tactile pleasure for this particular reader. I determined, despite all this, not to buy the last in the notional Hepworth ‘trilogy’ (funnily enough, ‘notional; trilogies’ form the subject of one of the essays contained within this latest book), ostensibly because I found the title irritatingly clever-clever, i..e. Nothing Is Real - The Beatles Were Underrated and Other Sweeping Statements About Pop, being yet another one with a hyphen in it and being yet another one with its head up the bum of the 60s/70s nexus. In the end, however, this was precisely the reason why my wife bought me the thing, as part of my Santa sack - “it’ll give you something to complain about; I know how you like a good moan”, not exactly a thumbs-up reference for my contribution to domestic co-existence. But I will always at least attempt to read a book that someone has gone to the effort of providing for me, however arch and/or sarcastic their intentions might be, and so I read and finished Hepworth’s tome over the past couple of days.

And I was very pleasantly surprised, as it was one more hint that assumptions and judgements-by-cover are so not-clever.

 In this case, the elaborate cover is totally appropriate as clothing for the body of work contained within. It’s basically a ‘best of’ Hepworth’s journalism over the past fifteen years of so for ‘dad mags’, a sort of ‘dad lit’ if you like - fifty pound man’ as I believe that people of my age were typecast as, in the end days of the record shop (I know that the latter still exist, but they are essentially the equivalent of the survivors of a zombie apocalypse, wide-eyed and desperate). The book reads like a series of blogs, and it is interesting that the longest (20 pages) is also the oldest (2004) - it’s like the author has developed the quality of brevity, the 2004 essay on the Blues reading like a typical Mojo hagiography, while the later pieces take one idea and run with it for a short while, leaving plenty of questions in their wake. I don’t propose to go through them, but would say that Hepworth’s style is engaging, informal and quietly informed and modestly erudite.

If there is an obvious downside, it is that Hepworth’s glance is a backwards one, not surprising given that he must be nearing seventy years of age by now?. There is a great cover photo of the Fab Four, on what looks like the occasion of their last tour of America in 1966 (wearing very Paperback Writer and Revolver apparel), which initially served, as well as its cutesie title, to rather put me off the book.. Hepworth is not a first-generation rock writer, but his lightly-worn knowledge, and its un-bumptious presentation, makes this it an enjoyable and thought-provoking book. So my wife got a dash of gushing positivity rather than the expected male menopausal bile. This “goes to show you never can tell”, as a great rock miniaturist once said, a line that Hepworth quotes as being from “the best record ever made.. this is not a matter of opinion, it’s a matter of fact”.

Great Black Women From Ancient To The Future - The Sons Of Kemet Salute Them

In the wake of my decision to check out more up-to-the-minute music, I plumped for Wire’s Record of the Year, Your Queen Is A Reptile, by British saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings-led collective, The Sons of Kemet, and was converted from the get-go. The great title is a reference to David Icke-type conspiracy theories that hold to the notion that our Royal Family are, not to put too fine a point on it, descended from lizards. As a counterpoint to this rather appealing idea, The Sons of Kemet (SoK) dedicate the tunes on their third record to’ Black Queens’ of the Present and of the Past, exemplars such as Doreen Lawrence, Angela Davis and Harriet Tubman, “our queens” as they are described in the liner notes. These are self-created women and self-empowered women, as opposed to this country’s rulers, on the throne “by right of blood, by way of lineage, by reason of tyranny, by the confidence of tradition”, as the sleeve notes would have it. You get the general idea, one that is a resonant one for the children of the Windrush Generation, and one that has been further explored by another of our great young saxophonists, Jason Yarde…  

The cover of the record features a depiction of Afro-Egyptian female royalty, conjuring up images of the Afro-Futurism that Graham Lock called Blutopia in his 1999 book of the same name about Sun Ra, Duke Ellington and Anthony Braxton. ‘Kemet’ is another word for Ancient Egypt, which immediately puts us in Sun Ra territory, but it is refreshing that this fine group are (largely) black British, as opposed to hailing from the Windy City, as so many Afro-Futurists have done in the past. Having said that, the opening track,’ My Queen Is Ada  Eastman’ is reminiscent of Chicagoan Henry Threadgill’s 80s Sextett,with its prominent percussive drive and use of the tuba. The album’s release being on the revived Impulse! label is another synchronous aspect of its presentational impact - the label that saw the release of so many fine Civil Rights-era recordings by modernist jazz masters such as Coltrane, Mingus and Shepp back in the day. The SoK use occasional vocals, informed by rap and ragga, but this largely instrumental work’s political heft mostly emerges through its passionate commitment to stylistic integration and continuity. Like Ben Lamar Gay, who I discussed a few blogs back,  an Equal Opportunities approach to musical genres ensure that Afrobeat, rap, reggae, grime, jazz and improv all get a fair crack of the whip. The ancestor worship that is in evidence throughout, as hinted earlier, stretches back to Ellington’s ‘jungle music’ through to Art Blakey and the AACM, onward to our own Jazz Warriors of the British 80s and 90s.

Shabaka Hutchings deserves, and will probably get, a blog of his own. Suffice to say that he seems to be a Courtney Pine for the twenty-teenies, without disrespect to either man intended - comparisons are often invidious and unhelpful, but Hutchings’ lineage is connected intimately to Tomorrow’s Warriors, the educational music organisation which was a legacy of The Jazz Warriors and, accordingly, Pine himself. There is thus a continuity of young black British players, unspooling from the early 80s up to today. Hutchings met Steve Beresford at The Guildhall School for Music and Drama in 2008, which led to an invite to join the London Improvisers Orchestra, and thus offering an entree into the London-based Free Improvisation scene. He plays a major role in the Just Not Cricket! box set and DVD of British Improvisers recorded and filmed in Berlin in 2011. An interview in the April edition of this year’s Wire offers a full overview of his range of influences and playing situations.

The SoK’s sound is overwhelmingly poly-rhythmic, and the album uses five percussionists in all. Four tracks feature three of ‘em, and there are two pairs on two other numbers, those of Tom Skinner/Seb Roachford and  Moses Boyd/Eddie Hick. Theon Cross on tuba obviates the need for a bass or basses (which Threadgill has used) and is the second lead voice after Shabaka. The latter uses a stuttering, staccato style on the faster numbers, and a riff-based approach to spark off his improvisations - the Wire piece by Phil Freeman suggested that he “works up a simple motif to the point where it can suddenly be flicked on like a switch, channeling massive bursts of energy”, which sounds to me like a description of Albert Ayler. Hutchings doesn’t quite reach that peak of intensity (who does?), but, having seen him live on several occasions over the past few years, I can quite definitely assert that he is getting there, or thereabouts. A great performer and a great band.

Re-Discover Van Dyke Parks

I’ve been re-investigating an old album that history has mostly forgotten, if it ever registered it at all. In the mid-70s, I got hold of copies of both 1972′s Discover America and 1975′s Clang of the Yankee Reaper by Van Dyke Parks, probably best known as a producer and soundtrack composer. He wrote the libretto for The Beach Boy’s Smile and the lyrics for the peerless and baffling Surfs Up, the album’s highlight and possibly Brian Wilson’s most beautiful piece of music. At around the same time, he released the solo Song Cycle, an ambitious and allusive early ‘singer/songwriter’ work that was most ignored in the wake of the contemporary songs of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon. Parks sung from his own hymn sheet, referencing singers and writers of the 1930s, show tunes, buegrass and ragtime styles, all of which were and terminally unfashionable thing in 1967, well before post-modernism and ironic retromania reared their ugly head. (Sergeant Peppers was about to change all that, however)

I got shot of Discover America in the wake of Punk Year Zero fever, but hung on to Clang of the Yankee Reaper., mainly because of its wonderfully unusual and uncategorisable title track (Wiki suggests ‘avant pop’, ‘orchestral pop’ and ‘art-rock’). A tribute to the old Mississippi steamers, it was a deliberately nostalgic view of the Old South  - “the sun never set on the empire…let’s find time to drink tea from China…the good old days are here…as you hark to the clang of the Yankee Reaper”. Absolutely gorgeous and unlike anything else that I’ve ever heard, it’s been accused of pomposity, but it stands with Gene Clark’s near-contemporary solo classic No Other, the highest praise that I can bestow on any pop-rock product, as ultimate cod-orchestral nectar. It also ends with a most bizarre version of Pachelbel’s Canon in D, just for good measure.Steel band music also forms the basic building blocks of Discover America, and works better for me, having given it a new listen after re- discovering it in Hornsey Library before Xmas.

Once again, Parks was a man out of time when he made the album in 1972, when prog rock was at its height and so-called hard rock was beginning its ascendancy. The music from the West Indies that Anglo/American hipsters wanted to listen to at the time eminated from Jamaica (Catch A Fire came out that same year, and lead to the rise in popularity of ’roots reggae over the next seven to eight years), not Trinidad. Songs dedicated to Jack Palance(the film star), Bing Crosby, Rudy Valee and the Mills Brothers didn’t help to attract the long hairs, either - Hip Easy Listening was a far-off distant idea, a mere twinkle in the late Joseph Lanza’s eye. Parks did have the nous to include Lowell George’s cocaine-tribute, Sailin’ Shoes, and a couple of numbers by the increasingly-fashionable Alan Toussaint (then associated with The Meters), whose songs had also been covered by George’s band Little Feat.

Remember that this was well before the idea of ‘world music’ had attained currency, and steel bands were largely considered a novelty (as they are largely still are?). It sounded fresh, original and somewhat boundary-defying at the time, and, mirabile dictu, these records both clock in at well under forty minutes for the entire two sides of vinyl. One of the many things that I like about two of my faves from 2018, the latest by Current 93 and Death Grips, is their relative brevity. When I hear about Autrechre’s latest ventures into thirteen hours of YouTube uploads (NTS Sessions 1-4), I do rather lose the will to listen, if not to live. Park’s albums are both sparse in both meanings of the word, and all the better for it. The quality, however, is anything but sparse.

And what about the cover of Discover America? It’s similarity to the iconic 1977 image of the twin coaches presented on The Sex Pistols’ Pretty Vacant? ‘Trinidad’ and ‘Hollywood’ replaced by ‘Boredom’ and ‘Nowhere’? Five years apart, these two images may well have been separated by five decades or more. Bing Crosby and Bing Selfish; The Mills Brothers and The Ramones.

Trout Mask Revisited, Part 3

trevorbarre:

Beefheart was dissatisfied with Bob Krasnow’s tinkering with 1968′s Strictly Personal, so he was tempted by Frank Zappa’s offer of complete artistic freedom on Trout Mask Replica, on what’s more, a double album, which was still a relative rarity in 1969, despite Freak Out! (possibly the first such, an audacious move by Zappa on what was his debut release), Blonde On Blonde, Electric Ladyland, The White Album and Wheels Of Fire. An Evening with Wild Man Fischer on Straight Records was also a double, so credit has to be given to Frank Zappa for his sheer chutzpah as producer. His production values have had their critics, admittedly, but in many ways they were perfect for the audio verite of Trout Mask Replica. It’s hard to imagine the white-coated technicians at, say, Abbey Road, dealing with the material and the methods that Beefheart and the Magic Band would have presented them with.

The sound of Trout Mask Replica has been described extensively in rock literature, and also on YouTube (do check out Samuel Andreyev, although I do have reservations about his need to break the music down to its constituent parts, thus rather rubbing off the ‘fairy dust’ somewhat, in my view), so I don’t intend to bore the reader any further with ham-fisted attempts from yet another ‘busy music nerd’. However, I’d like to suggest the seven types that the 28 tracks on TMR can be broken down into, if anything just to point out the sheer variety on offer:

1) The Blues Stuff - Dachau Blues (rather tasteless, I’ll admit); China Pig (the only rock track that I know dedicated to a porcelain piggy bank, with accompaniment from earlier Magic Band member, Doug Moon,which is  probably the ‘straightest’ number on the whole album); My Human Gets Me Blues. Clue - none of these, apart from Pig, are blues as you or I would know them.

2)The Free Jazz Stuff - Hair Pie(s), Ant Man Bee. John French hated Beefheart’s reed work. Me, I think it works, especially on Ant Man Bee, especially when Beefheart cuts in at the 1:38 mark. It probably puts a lot of people off, however. Most people think free improvisers can’t play; Beefheart probably couldn’t, really.

3)The Ecology Stuff - spread throughout the album, and later reflected in his artwork. This concern marks him out; ecology wasn’t on most people’s agenda in 1969.

4) The Acapella Poetry Stuff - The Dust Blows Forward and the Dust Blows Back, Well, Orange Claw Hammer. Barmy, beat-influenced rants about dead-beats and ‘pirate friends’ in general. Some of the best tracks of all, imho.

5)The’ Fairly-Straight Rock’ Stuff- not much of this, to be frank. Sugar N’ Spikes, Ella Guru, When Big Joan Sets Up, Veteran Days Poppy (at a pinch).

6) ‘Love Songs’ - Ella Guru, Pachuco Cadaver, Bill’s Corpse, Sweet Sweet Bulbs, She’s To Much for My (or anybody else’s) Mirror. These are the on’s that spring to mind, but hey, we are in TMR territory here!!  No ‘Moon in June’ on this one.

7) Just Plain Weird - Plenty of these. Take your pick from Neon Meate Dream of an Octopus (the unconscious mind of such a creature, rendered in alliterative word/weird associations and assonances, if that’s your thing), The Blimp (utterly hatstand), Pena (this one is the one, towards the start of the original Side Three, which most people drew the line at, the one which Antennae James Semens probably got death threats about), and still one that I have ultimate reservations about. Tantamount to unlistenable, it still fascinates me, 43 years on.

So there you have it. Trout Mask Replica. Still as opaque and unique as it ever was. And ever will be. And the only thing that I’ve felt needed three blogs to get out of my system.

It would appear that Blonde on Blonde predated Freak Out! by about a month.

Xmas Lists

It’s that time of year again. End-of-year lists in various digital and print media.. The only one of them that I really bother with nowadays is that put together by The Wire (or is it just Wire, which does run rather less trippingly off the tongue?), which I have dutifully poured over, in the fortnight or so just before Xmas, ever since I first subscribed to the magazine in 1985. When it was mainly a jazz/improv publication (i.e. from its inception in 1982 through to around 1990/91), I was on fairly solid ground, knowing most of the artists featuring in the lists, and having a good idea as whether I would enjoy the ones that I hadn’t heard. It was also, of course, well before the internet and listening platforms such as YouTube and Spotify. Nowadays, I haven’t heard, or even heard of, many of the groups and individuals, but can at least get hold of their albums (if still appropriate to use such an anachronistic term) to give them a once-over before investing in buying them in a hard copy format.

This year, 2018, represents a new milestone (or should that be millstone) for me, in that I have finally hardly heard of any of the artists in the ‘Releases of the Year’ List, apart from some usual suspects such as Jim O’Rourke, Low and Yo La Tango. There are at least 30 that I have never come across, let alone listened to. Some would say this is exactly as it should be, a 63-year old man feeling ‘;out of touch’ with modern music, especially marginalised ‘underground music’. Now, I can remember when that term was first bandied about, in 1969/70, when even such now- sacred rock bands as Led Zeppelin and King Crimson were shoehorned into this most vague of genres. The burgeoning counterculture demanded such a ‘heavy’ epithet to describe for it’s sounds, but the term soon became meaningless as the scene soon became commodified and commercialised to the point of absurdity, before the advent of punk rendered it redundant. This current generation’s ‘underground’ is certainly below ground as far as this ageing listener is concerned, hence I felt it incumbent on myself to have a good old proper extended listen to at least one of the top ten to see what I might be listening. But which one? My favorites this year have been Death Grips’s latest, Year of the Snitch, and Current 93′s unusually coherent autumn release, The Light Is Leaving Us All, neither of which feature anywhere in Wire’s formulations.

I thought about Sons of Kemet and Your Queen Is a Reptile. A great title, and a vehicle of one of English Free Improv’s ,most promising young players, but in the end I plumped for editor Derek Walmsey’s individual fave, and number 3 in the main list, Ben LaMar’s Downtown Castes Can Never Block the Sun.  Gay is/was a member of Chicago institution the AACM and plays cornet and a plethora of samples. Most reviewers focus on his eclecticism and sheer stylistic variety. Stewart Smith opined in June’s Wire that “Gay constructs a cosmic pan-American music that dissolves temporal and spatial boundaries…covers a huge swathe of territory while being remarkably cohesive”.  I’ve put the record down as a potential present for myself in our family Secret Santa list (it’s a wee bit expensive for an impulse buy), but have given it a few prior listens on YouTube. It’s too early by far to say whether this is an album of ‘remarkable cohesion’ or a clever mixture of genres in which the whole fails to rise above the sum of its parts. Initial impressions are certainly of a carnivalesque mix, and there are instant reminders, for me, of the AACM diaspora (shades of the Art Ensemble with Lester Bowie, Henry Threadgill, Braxton); the Black Artists Group of St. Louis (Oliver Lake, Olu Daru, Julius Hemphill); the early-80s ‘Mutant Disco’ sylists such as Material and Coati Mundi; the herky-jerkiness of ‘Math-Jazz’ (if I am allowed to coin a genre name!); Tropicalia from Brazil, where Gay lived for a time; electronic soundscapes; and a few short spoken word pieces that put me in mind of Tom Waits.

It’s a lot to be getting on with, so I just hope that Santa can fit the vinyl copy down our modest chimney on the day in question.

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