The Architectonics of The Fall. Part the Second.

Mark Fishers article (pp. 151-169), Memorex for the Kraken, in Excavate! is at the centre of the book, literally and metaphorically, even down to its M.E. Smith - like title. Fisher, rather helpfully, manages to subvert his own arguments, by opining that:

“…(Smith’s) notes and press releases (i.e. his ‘para-texts’) were no more intelligible than the songs that they were supposed to explain”.

You could say the same about Sun Ra’s poetry or Anthony Braxton’s paratextual song 'titles’. I love further Fisher comments such as:

“…goblets of linguistic detritus, direct from the unmediated unconscious, unfiltered by any sort of reflexive subjectivity”.

The same has been said about dada poetry, Burroughs’s 'cut ups’ and other plethora of spoken word avantism. It’s very tongue-tripping diction, but what did Smith make of this sort of “academic thingy”? To her eternal credit, Brix Smith seemed to 'earth’ Smith somehow. with her “subliminal pop-harmony choruses”. Michael Bracewell was left with his fanciful imaginings of “bad nights in a working man’s club in Wakefield” or “vituperative Manchester lorry drivers”. This is rather absurd, like Oscar Wilde pontificating and fantasising about Emile Zola’s chosen subject matter, but has gifted Fall-watchers with various 'classist’ misattributions ever since. (Bracewell’s chapter in his This Is England essays is Exhibit A in this regard). The middle class press continued to regard the 'working class’ in retro-powered awe, as seen in the Oasis 'controversy’ (with Blur presented somehow as 'inauthentic’) of the mid-90s, with the Gallagher brothers presenting themselves as the ultimate 'anti-woke’ warriors, despite their moving, as quick as their eyebrows allowed them, down to London. (’Join the Capital’?) M.E. Smith predated their shtick by 15 years. But at least he knew his place. Unlike the aspirational Burnage twins, he barely moved away from his place of birth, Prestwich, for any length of time, apart from a brief time in Edinburgh (celebrated in the great Edinburgh Man, one of Smith’s most straightforward and directly honest tracks).

Both Michael Bracewell and Mark Fisher equate The Fall with “great art” (“the ability to provoke and doubt, simultaneously”, an utterly
unnecessary equivalence if there ever was one.) Smith’s incoherence ultimately rendered the group as aesthetically flawed; they were 'merely’ a great rock band, in the final analysis. “Whenever I say something, I often think the opposite as true as well”: this is a comment of the pub smart arse, not a great artist, and Smith’s lyrics are ultimately autodidactically incoherent (no offense here meant for either quality). It is possible, nay probable, that Smith became so arrogant because the “Southern white middle-class crap” put him on the pedestal of working class iconoclasm, a position that the Prestwich (i)mage undoubtedly reinforced and condoned.

So, Excavate! is not really a multi-faceted history of The Fall that I’d like. It over-focuses on the 'early days’, it downplays the role of female participants, it exaggerates certain literary influences and ignores the precipitous decline of the 'later years’. But, in the end, if you are a Fall fan, you will find much within these pages to enjoy. As ever with The Fall, there is much, much more to tell, but this blog format demands some brevity.

The ultimate Fall book still awaits us!! “M.R. James be born, be born…Sludge Hai Choi”!!

‘Excavate!’ The Architectonics of The Fall. Part the First.

So I’ve finally finished Excavate!, the recently published 'coffee table’ book on The Fall, a work that just screams 'Important Band!’ and would no doubt feel at home as an accompanying programme for a Tate Modern exhibition. But is it worth £25 from a Fall fanatic’s pocket? Well. yes and no. (The fanatic is going to buy this, whatever their bank account is telling them.)

There is something about M.E. Smith and The Fall that seems to bring out the 'heavyweight’ rock critics (no Simon Reynolds here, though, strangely). Almost inevitably, the 'p’-word comes up (no Paul Morley or Stewart Lee here though, equally strangely). We do, however, have Ian Penman, Mark Fisher and Michael Bracewell ('brace well for Cultural Studies impact’, the more timid reader might opine), so there are ponderous exegeses aplenty in this volume. Almost inevitably, given the age of the authors, the main focus of much of Excavate! (a nominatively determinate title if there ever was one!) is what we can describe as the 'pre-Brix period’ of 1977-1982. Only Dan Fox and Sian Pattenden gives this most high profile of former Mrs. Smiths any wiggle room, which is profoundly a-historical, but these wordy male writers tend to fixate on Smith’s early lyrics (especially those on Grotesque, Hex Enduction Hour! and Slates), at the expense of the group’s fantastic music, unfortunately. The prolix tendencies and proclamations of the likes of Fisher et al. have their place, but it is the sheer muscular heft of the band (to which the various Fall ladies made a significant contribution, it needs pointing out) which makes listening to it such a memorable experience. (Musically peaking, very arguably, with the very Brix-influenced Weird and Frightening World…and This Nation’s Saving Grace, imho). But the sheer opacity of the Smith verbal canon makes for a much more exciting excavation for the “Mere Pseud Mag Ed.”. It’s ironic that Smith, who often protested a dislike of 'pseuds’ and 'students’ ends up being memorialised by some of the most extreme examples of these types. Fisher, a soi-disant 'working class intellectual’, (a perfect example of a “man with chip”, “the white crap that talks back”?) should surely have been welcomed with open arms by Smith?

Penman’s piece is a typically dense example of 'loosening of association’ (a diagnosable psychiatric symptom, by the way) for which he has been, justifiably, mostly forgotten over the past 40 years. Paul Wilson cheekily discusses Working Men’s Clubs, and co-editor Bob Stanley takes on, as if in sympathy, the concept of 'amateurism’. (Later on, Owen Hatherley expiates on 'the disciplined worker’, so maybe, like The Grateful Dead, The Fall were “a seemingly impossible combination of the shambolic and the disciplined”?)

If there had been more articles like these, then the book would surely have been a more satisfactory read. Another piece, from the fanzine When Saturday Comes, on football and its roots in amateur northern teams, is excellent, managing to be both straightforward and learned at the same time.

Unfortunately, the 'spectres’ of the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, M.R. James and Arthur Machen soon exteriorise, and we are down the rabbit hole, or rather the culs de sac, of 'hauntology’ and 'psychogeography’, and things become much more wobbly, with the ’“mere grubby pseuds making capital out of The Fall’s sweat and pre-cog ”. (A quote from the notes on the cover of Lie Dream of a Casino Soul.) The teenage Smith had a love of these early 20th century writers of the Weird and Uncanny (Fisher wrote an immensely dull book about these concepts), and critics have extemporised on their influence on The Fall ever since Spectre vs Rector back in late 1979. (Passing references to James and Lovecraft in this track are hardly an endorsement of 40+ years of dodgy 'rock criticism’ about their supposed ongoing influence.) It’s a neat trope though, a post-punk 'genius’ producing a combinative mythos from the work of previous 'pulp modernists’ (Mark Fisher’s term), but there is little evidence to demonstrate that this was ever a 'thing’. “If there is a point, it is precisely to disrupt any centripetal effort to establish fixed identities and meanings” (Mark Fisher, p.164). In other words, a disingenuous “don’t ask me what he’s on about!”. To be honest, most Fall criticism is very much about attempts to impose an overarching order of that which is fundamentally disordered (and all the better for it!)

To be continued…

The ‘Cost’ of Academic Books. Part Two.

I have had occasion to discuss, both in my own books and within these blogs, the issue of 'academicisation’, 'historicisation’ and 'intellectualisation’ in both jazz and free improvisation. Excessive use of these approaches can make the music appear unapproachably 'niche’ and/or inward-looking. The costing of books by some publishers, more than a few with their own connections to institutions of 'higher learning’, serves to reinforce the notion of exclusivity, the hefty price tags removing some books from the purview of the 'mildly curious and potentially interested’ enquirer, and ring-fencing them for an academic freemasonry and/or well-heeled fanatics.

I was directed to two blogs about this subject, by Thomas Kidd (March 2017) and Katie Beswick (June 2018). Both were titled, in effect, “Why is this book so expensive?” Andy Hamilton has merely reinforced their observations in his e-mail, sent to me today, which also serves to back up Louise Gray’s comments in her review of his Steve Beresford book (cited in the last blog). It appears that the 'business model’ could be summed up as:

“Expect low demand for this book, sell to academic libraries at a high price, and recoup our costs, thereby at least 'breaking even’. Sell in paperback format at a future date, if sufficient demand appears to be there”.

I would have thought that there would be a relatively healthy demand for a book about Beresford, one of our most highly profiled improvisers over the past 45 years? I can’t quite grasp why such a book should be marketed in such a reductive way - is it because Steve is seen as an 'intellectual poseur’ himself, having taught at university level? (David Toop also runs a similar risk.) Anyone spending 5 minutes with the man would be disabused of such a notion: 'down to earth’ and 'approachable’ just about nails Steve Beresford.

Katie Beswick observes that these sorts of books “are very niche, and publishers don’t expect to sell more than a few hundred copies…purchased by mostly university libraries”. She suggests that the author “typically makes minimal returns on any sales” but that the process can give him/her both “kudos” and “career progression”. Thomas Kidd, in turn, notes that:

“Normally, only books that are regarded as having 'trade potential’ - meaning popular sales - will be priced at 30 dollars or less…if the press does not regard it as a trade book, it will not be marketed or sold as such”.

There are interesting correspondences here with 18th and 19th century tropes about the inferior status of 'trade’ (“he is 'in trade’ ” being a snobbish insult, in the literature of the time) as opposed to the 'intrinsic value’ of being from an aristocratic, landowning background. 'Merely mercantile interests’ were always held in lower esteem, at least in the ruling class mindset, than the latter’s 'essential worthiness’. Although “trade potential” without doubt brings home the bacon in the overall narrative of a publisher, the high price of 'academic books’ ensures that they at least 'break even’ with their more 'aristocratic’ products. The 'profit motive’, in this particular scenario appears, rather suspiciously, to have been subsumed under a larger aesthetically 'high minded’ motive? Certainly, an RRP of £130 indicates a Harrods level of commitment to 'quality over quantity’.

Hmm. Discuss?

The above is probably a rather fanciful 'false equivalence’ but, just as economically trammelled aristocrats found it necessary to marry 'beneath them’ to survive and thrive 'in the market place’, it might behove publishers to take a punt on making their more challenging product more accessible to the 'lower orders’. The ordinary punter is perfectly able to appreciate an aesthetic object, or a demanding narrative. If I can sell a few hundred copies of my self-published books on a perceived 'very niche’ topic, look at the potential for an large printing institution to attract an considerable audience for beautifully bound editions selling at a high, but not completely barmy, price. After all, look how many want a vinyl edition of The Beatles (at over £30, ffs!) or Electric Ladyland (ditto), as opposed to 'soulless’ compact disc editions, never mind a copy that is up, up and away on a cloud. (Albums that I need not remind the listener, were released well over fifty years ago.)

News Just In

And the news just announced (22.00 hrs on Wednesday 9th June 2021), is that Oxford University Press is closing down its printing arm, with a job loss of 20 people. I am reminded that whilst, in the late 1990s, there were maybe seven record shops in Camden Town, there is now only one. (As far as I can ascertain, but I may be wrong.) Bookshops face a similar fate (as do libraries). Let’s not insult the audience by pricing out challenging, but potentially rewarding, books, because of the default option of “no-one will be interested in this stuff”.

“Why Are ‘Academic’ Books So Darned Expensive?” Part One.

I asked myself this question when I discovered that The Aesthetics of Imperfection in Music and the Arts, a collection of essays and interviews published by Bloomsbury Press, that I was asked to contribute to by its co-editor, the Wire-linked author and philosophy lecturer, Andy Hamilton, had a whopping RRP of £130 attached to it. I immediately, and narcissistically, thought to myself, “there goes the general public’s opportunity to read your modest contribution to the book, entitled, not especially originally, 'The Aesthetics of Improvisation in Jazz and Free Improvisation’ ”. Like most books that bear an 'academic’ imprimatur, it will probably be available at some point in the future in paperback form, but, even in that format, is very likely to retail at about £30. a price that will put off most people apart from the die hard fan.

Another recent Bloomsbury publication, coincidently a biographical piece by Andy Hamilton, is Pianos, Toys, Music and Noise: Conversations with Steve Beresford, weighing in at 313 pages (a relative flyweight in comparison to Aesthetics…) and priced at a mere £81. Reviewer Louise Gray (Wire #466) opined that it is “aimed at academic libraries…The price hurts. A much more affordable paperback is on its way next year”. This is such a great shame. (I have read sections of the book, and it looks like a great read for the 'non-academic’, but there is absolutely no chance of this particular non-academic stumping up that sort of a sum.) The Aesthetics… volume is self-descriptive, in that it a lovely product in hard copy. Any reader who loves the latter format will appreciate the gloss and heft of this professionally bound book, which, if looked after, should last its owner(s) a lifetime. Unlike my copy of The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records (Granta Books) that literally fell apart after a single reading, basically due to crap bonding glue. My treasured copy of John Wicks’s Innovations in British Jazz: 1960-1980, long out of print, suffered the same disintegrative fate, so a big cross next to Trevor Taylor’s late Soundworld Books, I’m afraid (the use of ineffective glue again). Two other great books on jazz that I own, are also beautifully and robustly presented, but have remained resolutely intact: Jazz in the 1970s: Diverging Streams by Bill Shoemaker, and Duncan Heining’s Trad Dads, Dirty Boppers and Free Fusioneers: British Jazz, 1960-1975.

From what I remember, the Shoemaker and the Heining came in at around £25 and £30 respectively, so the price of decently bound books doesn’t have to be either toe-curling or eye-watering (pick your own chosen body-discomfort metaphor!) So I decided to do a small amount of research to find out why the likes of Bloomsbury Press were asking such ridiculous prices, and what their business model might be. (Presumably does it involves selling books to interested parties?)

To Be Continued...

Dominic Lash: A ‘Distinct’ and 'Discerning’ Artist

Having just put N.O.Moore’s two introductory recordings for his new label, DX/DY, to bed (see recent blog), I’ve been assimilating three more, this time from bassist/composer Dominic Lash’s slightly older venture, the neatly named Spoonhunt label. They are released on the first of this month (June 2021) and although the label has actually been in existence since 2015, these represent its first compact discs. Mr. Lash thought I might be interested in listening to them, the reason for this largesse being, I assume, that I blogged enthusiastically about his 40th birthday bash at Cafe Oto, (way) back in January 2020, one of the last gigs that I attended before the big shutdown came into full effect in March last year.

Imagine my pleasure in finding out that two of these CDs contained the first and second sets of the 13th January concert: the first by an untitled (and co-credited) quartet-to-die-for, consisting of Lash himself, the late John Russell (one of his last live performances?), John Butcher and Mark Sanders. Lash was in august company here, the others having been stalwarts of the free improvisation scene over the last few decades, being very much the 'new boy’, despite writing and playing since the mid-2000s. The disc is called Discernment, and is, as one would expect, top-notch 'group music’, in the sense that one of the scene’s founding fathers, drummer John Stevens, meant, in describing the (relatively) ego-free interactive music that involves active listening (from both players and audience), and the eschewing of gestural grandstanding and set-piece 'routines’ (such as extended solos, or other prominent forms of individualism and self-promotion). The set lasted for 40 minutes, an appropriate length for a birthday conceit, and an ideal time for this most demanding, for group and audience, type of live performance?

Distinctions is the real meat of this three-courser, however, a big band (20 members) named 'Consort’ by Lash (as in English court music of the 16th and 17th century), formed in 2013 to combine “sustained tone music, improvisation (both guided and free) and the relationship between acoustic and amplified sound”, according to its leader. Lash is an extremely intelligent and thoughtful composer, but basically this can be described more simply as “ 'Noise’ with an initially friendly face”. Think of the first disc of AMM’s immortal The Crypt - 12th June 1968 (if you can do this without shuddering), and you’ll have some idea of the delights and terrors in store. Starting off, and continuing for a considerable period, with pointillistic free improv, as classically practiced by the late- sixties Spontaneous Music Ensemble, the piece moves inexorably onto the 'laminar’ extremes of LaMonte Young, Glenn Branca and even My Bloody Valentine and The Bomb Squad, i,e, “…indicating both the density of simultaneous material…and the layering of contributions one upon another”, as jazz critic Kenneth Ansell described the 'laminar’ methodology as far back as 1985. The resulting album is excoriating, exhilarating, exhausting and ultimately gloriously cleansing. Unfortunately, some of the multiple overtones, frequencies and other fortuitous sonic byproducts of such a large ensemble in such a small space are lost on a domestic sound system. Having 'been there’, I can attest to a diminution of effect in the home setting, but this will in no way detract from the enjoyment for those that 'weren’t there’, just as not having been in Notting Hill’s Crypt chapel hasn’t in the least prevented me from complete immersion in that singular performance of so many moons ago.

The final album is called Limulus (apparently a species of sea crab), by another quartet, with Lash joined on this occasion by Alex Ward (playing solely electric guitar here), and two Spanish improvisers, knotty alto saxophonist Ricardo Tejero and melodic drummer Javier Carmona, both previously unknown to me, and acquitting themselves very well here, in this most testing of environments. Made more 'rock-y’ by Ward’s guitar, this group is named The Dominic Lash Quartet, and feels more part-composed than the entirely 'free’ Discernment (all writing credits go to Lash). It forms some kind of a mid-point between Discernment and Distinctions perhaps, and is , in very relative terms, more of a 'straight ahead jazz’ record. That is if you consider the Anthony Braxton quartets of the 70s and 80s to be 'straight’: 'Electric bebop’, as Paul Motion once described it.

That’s all that space really allows me, in a limited format such as this, but there is much more that could be said, and I consider these three recordings to be an ideal 'primer’ for anyone interested in exploring the shores and shoals of free improv. Or providing confirmation, for more seasoned sea salts, that the ship remains in the safe hands of younger crew members.

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The banner picture is by the late Mal Dean (1941-1974), which featured on the cover of the 1972 Incus Records vinyl release, Live Performances at Verity's Place, by two free improvisation pioneers, the English guitarist Derek Bailey and Dutch percussionist Han Bennink.