Not bad… for a cowboy

There was a time back in the late 1980s when people (me included) railed rather vociferously about a new-fangled format called the Compact Disc. This was a format (so the argument went) that record labels and Big Artists were leveraging to, ahem, ‘encourage’ consumers to buy their record collections all over again, somewhat spuriously (so the argument continued) under the promise of Better Sound Quality. The result was lots of, hm, older individuals offloading their vinyl collections in charity shops and filling the coffers of the labels and artists who, frankly, had already grown fat on the excesses of the 1970s and certainly didn’t need their coffers (or anything else for that matter) being filled any further, thankyouverymuch. There were of course positives in all of this. It allowed some amongst the vaguely ‘younger’ generations to feel antagonistically smug towards both older generations and those of their peers who (in hindsight quite rightly) could not have cared less about ‘format wars’ and just wanted to buy music they enjoyed listening to. Plussing as which it allowed those on limited incomes (the dole, student grants – remember those?) to pick up discarded treasure for (the price of) peanuts. They were truly the best and the worst of times.

Fast forward some thirty-five years or so and one could be forgiven for thinking that perhaps things have either barely changed or somehow come full circle, for the fashion these days appears to be for consumers to once again re-purchase music they already own, this time on ‘limited edition’ vinyl reissue collectables at ludicrously high prices. Still, it also means it is possible to pick up CD versions of the same recordings for (the price of) peanuts. Once again, these truly are the best and the worst of times.

Whilst the fashion for The Vinyls (as I believe some of the Young People call records, and who am I to say they are wrong to piss off the older generations who profess to Know Better) may or may not be fleeting, I would not personally be so dim as to not admit to a degree of hypocrisy. Do I still have a functioning record player (‘turntable’ is, I believe, the term preferred by The Audiophiles)? No. Do I still buy some new releases on vinyl? Yes I do. Partly this is as a means of supporting artists and small labels whose music I like and who I want to support financially (having run a tiny label for a few short years I appreciate how effective they are as a means of haemorrhaging money) and partly, I will freely admit, as a vague form of ‘investment’ (my new music purchases are funded almost entirely by old music sales). And yes, of course my younger self has just written a fanzine filled with disgust and is filing for divorce from this poor old soul. It’s a fair cop. I wouldn’t much want to still be hanging out with that insufferably angsty young man either.

All of which rather circuitously (one might even say tortuously) leads us to the rather magnificent Unadulterated vinyl boxset by Paul Quinn and The Independent Group (one purchase that has most definitely not been made as vague ‘investment’). Collecting releases from the early 1990s, it is, one has to say, a beautifully curated artefact filled with some of the most soulful sounds of world-weary ennui and bleak cinematic romance one could ever hope to hear.

Now much has been written, rightly, about the brilliance and lasting influence of Postcard Records. Most, if not all, of this focuses exclusively on the first flush of youth when the dashing young pretenders to the throne of Pop cast a disparaging eye on the cut of your jib and released a flurry of sensational singles in a riotously brief few years. Infected by a (post) Punk, effervescently furious youthful energy, more than a hint of ADHD and the overwhelming need to escape the suffocating environs of Ayrshire coastal towns, Postcard burned as an incandescent beacon of light, movement and magic. Standing still was never an option. In extremis, this perpetual nervousness came to a head in the form of the label’s only LP, Josef K’s The Only Fun In Town, being pressed up and released in a form everyone seemed to have already agreed was Not As It Should Be. Still, it resulted in a subsequent cottage industry of re-issues and re-imaginings of The Perfect Mix and the Perfect Sequence. What was that we were saying about collectibles?*

As brilliant as the first incarnation of Postcard was, however, I’d be willing to go to battle** in defence of Postcards’ Second Coming being the finer instalment in the whole magnificent story. Where Postcard part one was unapologetically singles based, part two was all about the albums. Whilst this might, symbolically, reflect the, hm, maturation of everyone involved (from Postcard’s Presidente Alan Horne through to the fans) it also quite simply reflected the fact that the artists involved had naturally developed to the point where the long form was of more interest than the short. Certainly some former Postcard artistes had been showing the way since flying the nest at West Princes Street, with Roddy Frame and Aztec Camera perhaps most obviously moving onto Bigger Things.

Almost immediately irked by an ’80s Indie Schmindie kitsch he no doubt saw as a myopic misreading of The Postcard Aesthetic, Frame had already jumped ship from Rough Trade to WEA in 1983, worked with Mark Knopfler and gone stratospheric (well, top three in the singles charts at least) with sophistipop classic Love. By 1993 he was in a delicious Dreamland with Ryuichi Sakamoto but probably already with an eye on the kingdom of Frestonia and the eventual dissolution of Aztec Camera as an entity, a band, a concept. Apparently not one for giving up on gripes and grudges, he would still spit spite in the Indie eyes even as he headlined the 2006 C86 ‘celebration’ nights at the ICA. The September 2021 release of all the WEA Aztec Camera albums plus a generous assortment of live performances and B-sides will perhaps remind us afresh of what a gift Frame left us with.

Elsewhere, OJ’s James Kirk had released one classic single on Horne’s Swamplands label in the form of the unutterably beautiful ‘You Supply The Roses’ and promptly disappeared from view, whilst Paul Haig had created a string of glamorous Pop delights for Postcard’s Belgian penpal label Les Disques Du Crépuscule. Sir Edywn, meanwhile, was not so very far away from his super smash single ‘A Girl Like You’ and the glorious Gorgeous George set. Eyes were firmly on the future. No looking back.

All that said, the first album that Postcard part two released was a blast from the past, a statement of intent to rewrite history. A chance to Put Things Right, Put The Record Straight, Put Things To Bed or whatever. It’s said that Ostrich Churchyard is what the first Orange Juice album should have been and perhaps would have been if Polydor hadn’t grubbed their hands all over things, but in the hindsight of history I’m not so sure it matters if that’s the case. Or rather, if it does then it does, and if it doesn’t it doesn’t. You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever remains sublime and so does Ostrich Churchyard. Play one when you feel punky, the other when funky. Or vice-versa. Or something else entirely. Certainly though Ostrich Churchyard and the Heather’s On Fire compilation of 1993 reminded us of what we already missed and of what the world could have had. Postcard was always inherently self-referential and implicitly understood that notions of authenticity were, and remain, nonsensical in such a context. Postcard understood that Pop is about massaging reality to create new fantasies. That and spoiling parties with punky sneers. Those posthumous Orange Juice releases were about all that and more.

Fire Engines never made it to Postcard part one, but there are those who believe that spiritually they certainly did. In that parallel universe ‘Candyskin’ joined Josef K’s ‘Chance Meeting’ as a double Postcard 7″ release that stormed the charts and took no prisoners. Horne certainly corralled former Fiery Red Davey Henderson and his WIN incarnation for the short-lived Swamplands project, though Postcard part two twisted the fantasy into stranger shape yet with the Nectarine No. 9. The first release was A Sea With Three Stars, an album of funky noise and melody strung out on rusted barbed wire. Songs like ‘Pop’s Love Thing’, ‘The Holes Of Corpus Christi’, ‘Don’t Worry Babe, You’re Not The Only One Awake’ and ‘Chocolate Swastika’ showcased Henderson’s skills for dissembling rock, pop, disco, noise, whatever into new forms that glittered with peculiar charm and decadent decay.

It’s been said many times in the past that Vic Godard was the Patron Saint of Postcard. If one were in doubt of this then one could do worse than check out the wonderful package that New York based Text Und Töne have assembled around Godard’s latest Subway Sect record. In the beautifully risographed booklet Kevin Pearce’s peerless chapter on Godard from his Something Beginning With ‘O’ book rubs shoulders with new texts from Steven Daly and Stephen Pastel, all of them in some form or another nodding to the connections with West Princes Street and the Sound of Young Scotland. As an added treat the package also includes a flexi pressing of Alan Horne’s audience recording of ‘Holiday Hymn’, at the altar of which the young Orange Juice worshipped whilst whipping up their own storm. As Kevin taught us to note: It all fits.

Speaking of which, of course Godard made a record for Postcard part Two, and The End Of The Surrey People from 1993 certainly remains one of my very favourite albums by Vic or anyone. Meanwhile, in the realm of singles, the same could be said of ‘Won’t Turn Back’ as a 45 that shakes the rafters and shoots from the hip. A pure Pop Art KaPPPPOW!

Bullseye.

It’s these Paul Quinn and The Independent Group records that I keep coming back to, however, with Quinn the crooner exploring the shadows cast by nightclub spotlights, cigarette smoke drifting upwards and onwards as in some hardboiled Noir novella by Horace McCoy or David Goodis. Like Godard, Quinn here slips into Sinatra 1am nightclub singer persona and curls us around his finger. For me, these Independent Group recordings take the promise shown in the early Jazzateers and Bourgie Bourgie records and raise everything to an entirely new level. Unafraid to extend songs that envelop us in seductively stained velvet, these records are immersions, soundtracks to films (un)seen in minds’ eyes and utterly theatrical. Method acted operettas, even. The luxurious box set collects 1992’s The Phantoms And The Archetypes, 1994s Will I Ever Be Inside Of You and a confection of other oddities alongside a lavish hardback book that more than fills in the detail lacking here. Predictably, the box sold out within hours on pre-order, but all the recordings are available on Bandcamp.

Something that is not in the vinyl box set is the tremendous mix that Alan Horne and Paul Quinn assembled for the intermission at the Independent Group show at Glasgow’s Atheneum Theatre in 1993. It is, thankfully, also available for download on Bandcamp and it is perhaps the perfect Postcard artefact. Weaving extracts of Ennio Morricone Spaghetti Western themes with Mahler and early pre-Rock Pop tunes with Lou Reed classics, the effect would be entirely cinematic even without the extracts from Midnight Cowboy that weave and tease within. It’s a tremendous, mesmerising way to spend a half hour.

More than anything though the reference points laid bare in the mix give lie to any lingering ideas of Postcard as some raggedy underground Indie underachievement. Eyes were always set firmly on the stars/Stars, just not at any cost. Delusions/illusions of grandeur are infinitely more appealing than grubby surrenders to ‘reality’, after all.

*Full disclosure: I probably have at least five different vinyl and CD versions of The Josef K Album and no, I could not tell you which one I prefer.
** I would not Go To Battle because that would be daft. I would, however, go to a marble bar and argue the toss over a gin sling.

Anti-Pop Pop Art

Perhaps the ongoing onslaught of interminable winter has coloured my thoughts, but there is something marvellously apposite in experiencing the steely grey aesthetic of The Attendant’s ‘Audit’ collection in the midst of a bleak and chilly May. From the industrial glass grey of the 10″ vinyl, through the utilitarian plastic liner (neatly, subtly embossed with the Faux-Lux label logo in one corner) to the slim A5 booklet of poetry and photographs, the whole package is a magnificent Modernist/Brutalist homage to the (sub)urban experience. Originally released on a series of lathe cut singles, the sounds assembled here are the work of Pete Astor and Ian Button, two quietly iconic monuments in the landscape whose varied works with the likes of The Loft, Weather Prophets, Thrashing Doves, Death In Vegas and Papernut Cambridge have surely populated any number of Unpopular record collections in the past three or four decades.

There is something marvellously post-industrial about the act of making and distributing essentially hand-crafted artefacts that simultaneously embrace and reject the Pop prerogative. In this respect the recent resurgent fashion for lathe cut singles is to be applauded. For me they seem to exist in the exquisite void created by digital musical distribution and consumption, a void that Pop rightly insists be filled with Product. You don’t actually PLAY lathe cut singles after all, do you? And even if you do, they pay you back with a louche grin and disintegrate before your very ears like Dorian Gray rapidly decomposing the instant his painting is unveiled. There is also something rather appealing about artists making lathe cut releases in an era when The Vinyl has returned to a position of exalted worship. So, when Major Labels muscle in on the remaining pressing plants with their absurd Anniversary Reissue demands, bullying the tiny independents into the gutter in the process, perhaps the lathe-cut is simply an act borne of necessity. Either way, they are cult collectibles, anti-Pop Pop Art sculptures and political conversation pieces in one delicious package.

‘Audit’ of course is not a lathe-cut artefact but an industrially pressed 10″ vinyl treat for those of us who were too slow and/or insufficiently hip to scoop up the ‘originals’. Those originals were born to an extent in the early semi-apocalyptic haze of the 2020 COVID lockdown, The Attendant appearing disembodied and blinking into the light of eerily emptied city streets, an excuse and a reason to assemble some of Astor’s poetry into a form perhaps more easily consumed in the realms of mediated culture we like to inhabit. Responding instinctively to the (post) Punk edict of do-it-fast and do-it-now (also, do it clean), Astor and Button reacted to their environments and impulses, crafting Astor’s words into concrete form. The end result is not unlike listening to Lou Reed with a soft English accent recounting gently surreal tales of marginal members of extended families (‘Magnificent Aunt Mary’), the hidden complexities of people we think we might know (‘Music On’) and, my own personal favourite, “The hyper-intense banality of those years when everything is achingly, mind-blowingly significant.” (‘Teenage).

‘Audit’ reminds me too of the great suburban surrealism of Animals That Swim; of Robin Hitchcock’s psychedelic urbanity with the humour dialled back to a shade above zero; of Gravenhurst daydreams rotating under a disco ball at midnight; of The Kinks slow dancing with Saint Etienne illuminated in the flickering glow of an 8mm film projector showing a James Fox screen test; of Blue Aeroplanes in sleep mode given a blood transfusion of funk and electronica; of Stephen Duffy living on a hill with Wire as house guests, taking the world apart and reassembling it beatifically off-kilter, just so. A barrage of imagery. A slow burn of reference and illusion. The sound of “Film stock oxidising below” as Astor himself might say.

There is also something neatly cyclical in the idea of ‘Audit’ collecting together collectibles into a slightly more accessible form, in that there is a mirror held up to those inexpensive early Creation compilations where we were encouraged not to scrabble around collector’s zips for 7″s and where perhaps we first heard The Loft and The Weather Prophets. It was always good advice, and I’d certainly suggest snapping up a copy of ‘Audit’ before it too attains the patina of desirable rarity.

‘Audit’ by The Attendant is released on the Faux-Lux label on July 2nd 2021 and can be ordered from Bandcamp. There will be a launch show for ‘Audit’ at The Betsey Trotwood, London, on 2nd July with further live performances to follow.

A bunch of Loopers

Last time out I was talking about Stuart David’s tremendous series of ‘Peacock Johnson’ books and I very much hope you have been tracking those down and enjoying them too. Now I do like the idea of crazy cosmic coincidences, and there have been lots of those cascading into my life just recently, not least of which has been the pleasure of being reacquainted with the terrific records made by David and Wee Karn (not forgetting Ronnie Black and Evil Bob at various points) in their Looper identity. I admit that I had lost track somewhat of what they were up to at around the time of 2002’s ‘The Snare’ and indeed, listening to that set now I’m convinced that even this one passed me by at the time. Particularly since it contains the track ‘Peacock Johnson’, which I’m sure I would have remembered on reading the books. This is how it goes with things though, isn’t it? We drift in and out as we move through life. I have this model of life being a series of ellipses (ahem) looping out from a centre to which we return every so often before flying off on a different tangent. Each loop is different, even if only subtly, in trajectory and length, whilst that centre is something to do with the sense of loss, or absence. A need for replenishment.

Anyway, that’s my cod-philosophical theory, backed up by nothing more than feelings, personal observations and experiences. You might well think it’s all nonsense, and that’s fine. There is perhaps something in the isolationist nature of existence that insists each of us has some theory that explains our existence, at least in part. And that’s mine.

So Looper loop back into my life, and that’s a pleasure for sure. I’ve been very much enjoying the 2015 retrospective collection ‘These Things’ which curates the work of some seventeen years into five discs of instrumentals, spoken word pieces etc. It’s a delicious treasure trove, a musical box of delights that transports us to a universe inhabited by electronic glitches snogging memories of childhood games of Dead Mans’ Fall on the Commando Hill. It takes me back too, to days of falling in love with Stuart David’s wee ‘Ink Polaroids’ for his Treehouse imprint, and my own ‘Belle Lettres’ stories and short pieces penned in that blurt of excitement around the mid 90s I suppose it must have been when we were doing our Living Room club in Exeter and pissing about with record decks, tape machines, slide projectors, TVs and video tapes. And in another of those crazy cosmic coincidences of course our Living Room friends Appliance would end up sharing the same record label as Looper on Mute. Crazy, crazy world.

The first Looper performance was in 1997 at the Glasgow School of Art, perhaps around the same time that a well-oiled Appliance were lubricating our Living Room in Exeter. It’s a nice touch of synchronicity, even if the particular truth exists only in my head*. Regardless, the Art School venue is another of those cosmic coincidences, for that place of wonder and powerful magic(k) continues to drop grenades of connection, memory, nostalgia and possibility into the/my world. How could it be otherwise? Well, just press fast-forward for two years, and a full Looper band played at the first Bowlie festival in April 1999. Now personally I could not make it to that very first Bowlie. I forget the reasons. Perhaps it was tied up with a general aversion to notions of festivals of any kind. Perhaps something else. I was, however, able to attend the pre-Bowlie shindig that Pam Berry and friends put on at the Betsey Trotwood the night before the gang headed down to Camber on a Routemaster, like some Indie Kid ‘Summer Holiday’ extravaganza. Upstairs at the Betsey I performed as The Duke Of Harringay for the first and final time, reading stories over rudimentary electronic collages cobbled together with computers and Pritt Sticks. Nicky Momus was in the audience, no doubt thinking I was a piss-poor attempt at something he did ten years previously. If Stuart David and Wee Karn had been in the audience they’d likely have sued for copyright infringement. Casting back it seems like a peculiar moment in time, a point at which the worlds of work and creativity could exist in parallel. Surreal.

The Looper collected on the ‘These Things’ box set are a bit of a collage burst of surrealism too, with threads of realities being pulled into their alternate universe taking on new and peculiarly delightful form. It’s a fine place to revisit or to visit anew, a richly rewarding trip down memory lane or a drift into avenues that may by turns evoke sensations of deja-vu and/or open up vistas of peculiar pop-art possibility. As one of the cuttings collected in the booklet (alongside excellent sleevenotes from Tim Burgess) suggest: “God bless Stuart and Karn – the Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore of Camberwick Green.”

All of which brings us up to the present day, and the delightful realisation that, like many artists during the period(s) of pandemic lockdown, Stuart David has continued to record and release a series of glorious golden nugget instrumentals. From a personal perspective (is there any other in the Unpopular universe?) the hazy shuffle beat strum of ‘South Beach Kiosk’ is the hook that draws me in; a literal and metaphorical strut on Troon prom past the war memorial and the bins where once we pasted up posters for The Sea Urchins debut single and flyers for the mythical, washed out Beach Party of nineteeneightywhenever. The cover photo shows a detail of the shuttered kiosk, a far cry from the chaotic abandon of the image that accompanied a Guardian article in summer of 2020 about the surges of (in)humanity to the beaches.

In a similar vein is ‘Heatwave’, with its cover shot of kiddies playing in the sand and its sound of Ben Watt’s ‘North Marine Drive’ dancing close with a drum machine caught in a timeloop of a 1930s dance hall. Short, sweet, and just ever so slightly sinister. Or what about ‘Wandering’, where we take to the dunes and gaze across the Firth at the Heads of Ayr cowering beneath low winter banks of cloud, shivering in our anoraks and daydreaming of car tyres rolling down the ballast bank, caught in interior Beatles movies. And ‘Blurred Stars’, sounding exactly as it ought: Ultramarine meets Felt on the Train Above The City. Or, most delightful of all, the two minutes and forty of the blissful ‘Faraway Near’ accompanied by its cover shot of lengthening shadows on the hill, eyes cast to the horizon and Arran sleeping lazily as the sun slips down and away. Like some kind of contemporary daydream to the ones we frittered away in our childhoods of listening to ‘A Distant Shore’ in the hillside grasses, it will break your heart whilst applying the most perfect balm imaginable.

And so it goes on. The endless ebb and flow of memory seeping, of time slipping and sliding. Future beams back to a past and tumbles forwards to a present. Concorde on circles and bumps. The Waverley on the horizon and a bunch of loopers in the dunes. Pure Magic, by the way.

*Intensive Research (looking at old flyers in boxes) suggests that there is some shade of fact in this truth, with Appliance playing at the Living Room in late March of 1997.

Love Story

LOVE STORY

Alistair Fitchett on ‘My Rock’n’Roll Friend’ by Tracey Thorn.

Tracey Thorn has been on something of a creative roll in recent years, with a steady flow of books, newspaper/magazine columns, and (let’s not forget) a tremendous solo record in 2018’s, erm, ‘Record’. To someone of my age, who thrilled to the brittle charm of The Marine Girls, fell head over heels for the sparse yearning of ‘A Distant Shore’ and then settled into decades of ever-shifting, (nearly) always rewarding records with Everything But The Girl, it has felt like a positive flurry of pleasure. The world may have been going to hell in a handcart, but there’s always been something new from Tracey Thorn to pull us through. Okay, that’s maybe caffeinated hyperbole, but I swear down that on a level it is on the level. And now she’s written a book about everyone’s favourite Go-Between. Stop the world right here. We’ve reached the moment of perfection.

That’s bullshit, of course, because the world is still going to hell in that same old handcart and it’s got some dodgy wheels to boot, so what the… and did you know that everyone’s favourite Go-Between was Lindy Morrison? Certainly everyone I speak to recently is saying as much. And it might be true. It might be that Tracey Thorn’s gloriously celebratory and incandescently incendiary book about her friendship with Morrison has made everyone feel safe and secure about voicing that opinion. It’s like a ‘me too’ moment for Go-Betweens fans. It’s funny though, because almost everyone who I hear saying it is a man, and was probably at some point in their lives a journalist or a university student in Germany*.

Me? My favourite Go-Between is still Robert (Forster). Or maybe it’s that other Robert (Vickers) because frankly how can someone look so young for so long? We need to see the painting in the attic. Other days of course my favourite Go-Between is Amanda, and on others still it is Grant. But ah yes, of course my favourite Go-Between is Lindy. Has always been Lindy. Except when it hasn’t.

That’s a fucking clumsy way of saying the bloody obvious and that is that Life Is Complicated. And ever shifting. Marvellously, excruciatingly so. Thorn gets this of course, and so does Morrison. It’s just that Thorn also knows that if she’s going to write a book about Morrison (who, if she’s know at all is known as The Drummer In A Rock Band Than Never Sold Any Records Except To Three University Students In Germany**) she knows it needs to be something bigger and smaller than that. It needs to be a love story. And so it is.

So ‘My Rock’n’Roll Friend’ is in essence a love story between two women. But it is also by necessity a love story between women and men; between women and music; between men and music; between people and life. It’s also a story of the love (and hate) between writers and performers (we’ll maybe get into that particular can of worms later). Between performers and their audiences. Even if that audience is only three University students in Germany.***

It is also by necessity a story of pain, mistrust, anger, despair and betrayal. Speaking of which, Forster and Mclennan are in this book too. Of course they are. It’s just that they come across more as a couple of dicks than they do in any other story written about The Go-Betweens. It’s not wholly negative press (Thorn is too canny for that, and anyway, there’s the impression that behind the righteous indignation she still likes the odd Go-Betweens number) but it does throw the accepted worldview upside down rather, and that is fine. Others, Forster included, have written their versions of their stories and we are free to read them. That’s the way our world works, for better or for worse. Multiple narratives weave around us and we pluck the ones we fancy and fuck the ones we don’t. Or vice versa. And sometimes our perspectives on the ones we fancy switch around. So it always was and forever will be.

But ugh, hold up there a minute, because this notion of ‘so it always was and forever will be’ is also the crux of ‘My Rock’n’Roll Friend’. It’s a critical hinge point because Thorn recognises it as an essentially patriarchal one, rusty and greased with putrid excrement. So whilst the book is about Lindy Morrison and her life in and around the Go-Betweens, it is also an indignant assault on the macho male industrial machine. Punches are thrown and at times it’s uncomfortable reading (my own refusal to re-read anything I may have written about the Go-Betweens in the past few decades is one minor example of this discomfort). Thorn makes good points forcibly, which is how it should be. (An editor might now suggest altering my line to something like ‘so it always was but need not forever be’, but frankly that sounds a bit wanky and ugh, we’re really not that optimistic are we?)

So if Thorn essentially edits the issues around Morrison’s erasure from the Go-Betweens myth down to one of gender, then that is fine too. It’s an accurate point to be making, and frankly one would have to be blind and stupid not to recognise that. There is another point, however, that Thorn also almost makes, which is around the Rock world’s infatuation with the writer over the performer. Thorn does brush up against this when she refers to the idea that THE DRUMMER IS THE BAND, whilst elsewhere pondering the fact that almost all rock journalists immerse themselves in the lyrics of the songs at the expense of the playing. As a non-musician with an interest in words I can’t help but understand this approach (I’m resisting the urge to write the word ‘sympathise’ because frankly I’m too busy holding my hands up, pleading guilty as charged, it’s a fair cop guv etc.) but when you stop and think about it, it is a bit weird. But there it is. Maybe we really can blame Dylan and the Beatles and The Stones and the Swingeing Sixties for everything. And maybe if Morrison had been a drummer in a Jazz trio, or in a chamber orchestra (do they even have drummers in orchestras, or is that ‘percussion’? See, I told you I was no musician) then she’d have been written about differently. Maybe not.

There is much more to ‘My Rock’n’Roll Friend’ than rock’n’roll, friendship and feminism of course, but the coffee is cold, it’s getting dark and there are Other Things to think about. Tracey Thorn and Lindy Morrison might be thinking about them too, whatever they are. They’ll be writing and living, loving and dreaming. And the loves and the dreams will by turns be angry, compassionate, frustrated and celebratory because like we said, Life Is Complicated, and we make our sense of it by telling our stories. ‘My Rock’n’Roll Friend’ is Tracey Thorn’s.

And it’s brilliant.

*You probably don’t need to read the book to get the gist of the joke, but read the book anyway to get the joke. It’s funny because it’s true.
** It’s not my joke, so don’t blame me if you don’t get it or if you do get it but don’t find it funny.
*** It’s still funny.

‘My Rock’n’Roll Friend’ is published by Canongate.

This article may also be available on the International Times website.

Catching Up

Running behind, catching up. Always catching up and then falling behind. Up, behind, down, around. Repeat repeat repeat.

So it’s Tuesday. It’s Thursday. It’s Saturday again and never again, again. Drip the honey on your tongue, slip the tunes around your torso. What did we miss? What did we miss? Modernity insists on progress wrapped in nostalgia. Persists within anxiety cloaked in need.

We nearly missed RVG. Out of Melbourne out of Adelaide out of place out of time. A set of raw but ravaging live recordings released in 2017 and a single in 2019 that blinks in the blur of a Liberty Belle cascade on a Wide Open Road. See, it makes me clumsy. Forces me to stop. Start. Start. St-st-st-stutter step stop. Suede sweeps of charity shop jewels. Toys we lost in the floods and cares we found in the flames. The fleeting preening of a genderless Manics berating themselves in mirrors cracked and foxed. Delicious is over-used and this music is why.

We nearly missed S-Bends, who are also Australian and also sound exquisitely out of time and place. A gentler sound but scratchy enough to leave tender bruises. A five year old debut EP that is full of empty desire and the echoes of our dreams of tomorrow. A cover of a Rowland S. Howard number and a string of digital singles in 2019 wrapped up with luxurious extras in a set called ‘Nothing Feels Natural To Me’. Perhaps, perhaps, but this sounds naturally awkward and delicately poised on the edge of a forever that resonates to the sound of Jonathan Richman’s little dinosaur hitting (the) Pavement. The darkness trembles and eases a subtle wayward nervous smile. A song about visiting an I.C.U. at Christmas feels violently personal and churns my stomach. So good to be reminded we are alive. A song about inheriting an ’81 Datsun Pulsar that shivers with regret. A song called ‘Two States’ that hovers betwixt and between. Here nor there. Her not here. Slow-mo dreaming of Peugeots in the Sahara and the sound of Magpies and mogadon rain on the roof.

Here’s to a new decade. Same as the old decade. Running behind, catching up. Catching up and then falling behind. Up, behind, down, around. Repeat repeat repeat.

Weightless

Have you been following Ian Sansom’s ‘County Guides’ series of novels? If so you will have no doubt recently picked up the latest instalment ‘The Sussex Murder’. I admit it very nearly passed me by, for I do not get much opportunity these days to visit physical book shops and it is so easy to forget to remember to look for new instalments of things in the online world. I’m sure there are technologies that can help with this but frankly I am attempting to remove elements of technology from my daily existence. And no, the irony of writing and publishing this statement on a platform that relies on exactly those kinds of technologies is not lost on me, but as we have said many times in the past, in our lives we must embrace contradictions and cognitive dissonances or risk descent further into madness.

‘The Sussex Murder’ continues the adventures/travails of Swanton Morley (‘The People’s Professor’), his daughter Miriam and their assistant Stephen Sefton around the UK and further cements the notion of these novels as odd confections that blend humour, mystery and historical trivia with contemporary social and political commentary and critique. Should such a notion leave you a little cold, then it must be said that in Sansom’s hands the blending is done with remarkable deftness and lightness of touch. Sansom’s post-modern blurring of narrative boundaries is neither over-powering nor entirely invisible and for this he should be applauded. There are clearly clever on-going structural conceits taking place in these books (we slip between narrator Sefton’s ’then’ – in the case of ‘The Sussex Murder’ it is 1939 – and ‘now’, yet are never entirely certain when the ‘now’ is, except for that fact that our inner arithmetic suggests that ‘now’ must already be a ‘past’) yet it never even remotely feels like we are reading a stylistic exercise. The precision of language is admirable. Nothing feels superfluous. We move from here to there and everything we meet on the way feels valuable. This is a rare skill.

One of the historical criticisms of detective and/or mystery novels is often around a perceived lack of characterisation. This is never a line of criticism that I have held much sympathy with, for it’s often not true (Sayers’ development of Wimsey and Vane as characters is, I think terrific, and Christie’s key protagonists Poirot and Marple are marvellously convincing and intriguing) and anyway rather misses a point that characterisation is not what these books are really about. It’s like criticising Jane Austen for not leaving us enough clues to solve the puzzle. What puzzle? Well, exactly.

Nevertheless there is a sense that Sansom knowingly plays up to this kind of critique in the County Guides, for his characters do indeed feel largely like caricatures. Yet alongside this we sense them also tentatively developing through the series: With each new instalment we discover something new that both strengthens the cartoon yet also softens it. Small nuances are added. Doubts. Suggestions. Not least in the relationship between Miriam and Sefton where we wonder: Will they? Won’t they? Did they? Didn’t they? Backwards and forwards with nods to that suggested future-past. It’s hardly a strong Romantic Narrative Arc but I think it is all the better for that. Instead it is a ghost of a narrative, a dissipated vapour trail that might actually just be clouds.

In a short Q/A piece at the end of his recent novel ‘The Old Religion’ Martyn Waites suggests that “Brexit is the worst thing to happen to this country in my lifetime. And crime fiction should absolutely be discussing it.” One suspects this is something that Ian Sansom would agree with, for certainly ‘The Sussex Murder’ pulls on these points within the context of historical 1930s threads. To be fair, anything that casts a net back to the 1930s as a means of mirroring contemporary developments with regards rise of right wing extremism almost writes itself, which is itself quite terrifying, and one rather suspects that Sansom had this in mind when starting the series. Which either makes him remarkably prescient or a gifted historian, although perhaps there is an argument that says this amounts to the same thing.

On the subject of history, it is as vehicles for localised historical trivia that The County Guides novels really do excel. There is certainly a sense as the series unfolds that what Sansom is actually doing is writing these fictional guides into reality. Or writing realities into fiction, whichever makes most sense. Sansom has always been very strong at conjuring a sense of place, making one believe that his writing is rooted in the geography and detail of wherever his stories happen to be set. In ‘The Sussex Murder’ however he begins to unpick this imagined reality and reveals something of a process driven illusion behind it. It’s like Springsteen at the start of his Broadway shows. “I made it all up!”

It is not uncommon for me to read acknowledgements pages in books, and those in Sansom’s books are always a treat. They remind me very much of the rear cover of a fanzine I wrote back in the murky mists of time in which I refused to list ‘contents’ and instead listed ‘references’. It was all rather perversely or stupidly obdurate of me, but what else should a young fanzine writer be after all? Not that it made much difference in terms of limiting the audience, for it was at a time when all I could afford to do was photocopy ten copies for friends, all of whom were a relatively captive audience. Still, I believe there is something intrinsically thrilling about reading lists of reference points, not least because they are potential sources of connectivity pulse beats. Fragmentary (and ultimately illusory) connectivity, yes of course, but such is the nature of our cultural lives, and surely this is something to celebrate not denigrate.

Ian Sansom’s list of acknowledgements is certainly a source of such connectivity. It is a list of names and references where one finds oneself shouting ‘yes!’ Just like that Larkin line about Bechet:
“On me your voice falls as they say love should,
Like an enormous yes.”

So there is, to take at random: Wes Anderson. Yes! Beth Chatto. Yes! Chas Hodges. Yes! Sean Hughes. Yes! Mark Pawson. Hell yes! Dominic Sandbrook… oh wait, hang on, I’ll substitute Andy Beckett there if I may.

And then there is ‘Swagger’. In a moment of personal interpretation I suggest to Sansom in an email that this may perhaps be a reference to the Blue Aeroplanes album, to which he responds that it isn’t but goes on to thank me for reminding him of the record. Yet if it had been it would not be entirely out of place, for it is a record that is, like Sansom’s ‘County Guides’ series, simultaneously of its time, out of time and timeless.

‘Swagger’ is of its time because if I am picking at threads of frustration it still sounds Very 1990, in other words a fraction too dense and a touch too heavy to my ears. Less so with each passing year, perhaps, and with each additional listening, certainly, yet I struggle still with personal demons and haunted memories (less so with each passing year, perhaps, and with each additional listening, certainly) that (dis)colour my feelings for certain songs and touches.

Blue Aeroplanes touted many of the tunes for ‘Swagger’ with R.E.M. on the ‘Green’ tour in 1989, and the two groups and records are almost inextricably connected in my conscious. In other words both ‘Green’ and ‘Swagger’ sound (degrees of) terrific in isolation yet suffer on subsequent revisiting of earlier works. This is in part down to personal context and taste of course, but I believe both groups earlier/earliest records are more beguiling, mysterious, spacious and brittle.

Yet ‘Swagger’ feels out of time because, disconnected from its original context it now feels oddly more savage than I ever remember. The mud has dried and fallen away revealing a ravaged body that is animated in a dance of wild abandon. Which, with respect to Wojtek Dmochowski, is perhaps not an altogether inappropriate metaphor.

The take on Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Applicant’ is a case in point. Where once I believed the song stripped power from Plath’s poetry I now do a double take and wonder what on earth I was thinking. It seems now that the song forces me to hear meaning afresh. It startles in a way I had not previously considered, with words and phrases gouging and scything with brutal precision. Langely’s delivery is singing-not-singing, poetry-not-poetry, walking the tightrope betwixt and between.

Singles ‘and Stones’ and ‘Jacket Hangs’ are tremendous Pop mementoes that, increasingly shorn of that personal antipathy reveal themselves as much more valiantly awkward and perversely assured than I ever remember. Blue Aeroplanes at their best always came complete with awkward pauses (and indeed awkward poses) and these songs now make me consider them as something like a Big Flame with their razor blades blunted just so (this isn’t a pejorative statement, though you may read it as such) and… Television hesitating. And who needs Television when you had The Subway Sect? Well perhaps there is something of Godard’s English language school of thought here too. The poetry of the everyday given an eloquent reading.

Today though it is ‘Weightless’ that gnaws most on my mind. Five minutes of ebb and flow, of building and decaying. Earlier we mentioned a sense of spaciousness missing in some of the production of ‘Swagger’ and perhaps it is no surprise that ‘Weightless’ feels like the moment where that emptiness most suggestively creeps back in. Even in the moments of meshing guitars and noise there is a sense of void into which Langley hurls his words. There is something compelling too in the way that noise falls from our ears to be replaced by a tinitus echo and Langley murmuring about how he “liked being weightless best”. Today too it recalls the epic unfurling of Felt’s swan song ‘New Day Dawning’ and there is nothing wrong with that at all.

So my ‘Swagger’ is not Sansom’s ‘Swagger’ and on reflection why would it be? Indeed on reflection even it if had been it would not and that is as it ought, for those notions of connectivity, powerful, invaluable and life-affirming as they are, in our worlds of books and records they are still and always transient pulses. Profoundly important, yes, yet essentially illusory. Weightless, indeed.

A Bartered Lantern Borrowed

I do not often read books about music and musicians, but something about Robert Dean Lurie’s ‘Begin The Begin: The story of R.E.M.’s early years’ caught my interest. Certainly of the music I listened to during the period from, say, 1983 to 1985, those first three r.e.m. albums are the records that I would say still hold some kind of strange beguilement; are the ones that conjure strong personal memories and yet simultaneously manage to slip through the grasp of understanding and remain both elusive and illusive. Perhaps only the contemporaneous albums by The Go-Betweens are a match in this regard, personally speaking. In his book Lurie certainly does a good job of drawing together the threads of narrative that combined to mould the group and in so doing widely acknowledges the broader context of Athens and its artistic mythology. At the very least it had me scurrying back to play those old Pylon records, which still sound magnificent, and of course tangentially out to the Let’s Active records too and that is always a treat. It’s ‘Fables of the Reconstruction’, ‘Reckoning’ and ‘Murmur’ though that remain the ones that soothe and confuse in equal measure, and it’s to Lurie’s credit that he has made me want to immerse myself once more in the pleasures and pains held within their grooves.

Naturally I understand why Lurie’s book also takes in the ‘Life’s Rich Pageant’ and ‘Document’ albums (they are the necessarily ‘bigger’ records that bridge to the ‘major label’ breakthrough to mainstream recognition), but I admit that whilst both those records hold some treasure (the gorgeous Pop tingle of ‘Fall On Me’ would be the prime example) they leave me mostly cold now. I’m sure I have said it before, but I am certain this is largely because on those records you can actually hear what Michael Stipe is singing about and, for the most part, stripped of the shivering uncertainty of meaning held in the previous records, it all feels somewhat flat and worthy. It’s probably why I found those later chapters in Lurie’s book to be increasingly less engaging, as r.e.m. grew into R.E.M. and, increasingly shorn of art-rock local folkloric roots, became more another example of rock orthodoxy.

I should point out that I have no problem with R.E.M. and their subsequent global success, just that personally I have no interest in the records that followed. I’ve not got a huge amount of interest in the artistic life of Stipe post ‘Fables’ either, and I admit that what I have seen of his own photography work has left me balancing on a point between vaguely interested and distinctly underwhelmed. Certainly I have found them less interesting than, say, Dennis Hopper’s (to pick another artist from another medium whose photography might otherwise never have seen the light of day if not for their ‘celebrity’). Much of the interest in Hopper’s photographs now is as documentary evidence of history and culture (his shots of Hell’s Angels and of Sunset Boulevard riots in 1967 are particularly fascinating) but there are certainly threads of creative exploration evident throughout those images collected in ‘The Lost Album’ that bear out what Hopper said about the camera being, in the years between 1961 and 1967, the only creative outlet he had and that making those photographs “kept [him] alive”. There is certainly something of the obsessive amateur in the work, and as a tangential jumping off point I admit I keep getting drawn back to a particular 1962 shot of Brooke Hayward with a doll’s head.

This shot of Hayward and the doll’s head is a tangential point of reference because it reminds me of the celebrated work of another ‘amateur’ photographer, Ralph Eugene Meatyard. And whilst I say celebrated of course I admit that I have personally only stumbled (if you will excuse the pun) on Meatyard’s work thanks to Lurie’s compelling theory about the origins of the r.e.m. band name. In brief the theory goes thus: Michael Stipe, as an art student with an interest in photography and folkloric/outsider art, would undoubtably have come across the work of Meatyard in his studies/explorations (there are strong connections between the aesthetic of Meatyard’s work and, say, Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden or R.A. Miller’s garden of whirligigs that feature in the early R.E.M. promotional videos); Meatyard signed his correspondence with his initials, in lower case (r.e.m.); in their early years the group’s name on flyers, posters etc was similarly often written in lower case… So is the connection between Meatyard and the origins of the r.e.m. band name real/true? In hindsight it feels like a pleasant detour in meaning if nothing else, yet also entirely in keeping with a group who, in those early years certainly, seemed keen to keep the mysteries caged.

Meatyard too kept the mystery caged, being famously mute when sharing his work with fellow members of the Lexington Camera Club and rarely if ever giving interviews or talking about his photographs. What he did say about his work however is intriguing, particularly in reference to any connection into the music of early r.e.m. Certainly the notion of his work as being “romantic-surrealist” dovetails neatly with many of the songs from those first three r.e.m. albums which are so often suffused with a haunting Otherness with Stipe’s lyrics out of focus and lacking much meaning beyond abstracted associations of sound. Meatyard said about his famous images of his family members dressed in Halloween masks that the masks and the doll’s heads were there to function as ways into the photographs but that the more lasting interest would be in the backgrounds. Certainly they are photographs that reward repeated viewing. Those first three r.e.m. albums work in a not dissimilar way, where melodies and the occasional clarity of a lyric pulls you into a song that rewards with textures and shifts of light and dark that reward repeated listening.

In his essay that opens the ‘Kentucky Renaissance’ book about the Lexington Camera Club, John Jeremiah Sullivan writes that “[In the South], perhaps, we imbue our artists with a unique luminosity. We need them. And when a community does manage to form, however loosely, there’s a glow. You’re huddling together inside something, inside a culture, but against something too.” and it strikes me that this could just as easily have been Lurie writing about the Athens musical community in the late 70s and early 80s. Indeed, it is the threads and connections Lurie traces between people from that period that are the most intriguing and engaging elements of ‘Begin The Begin’ and I admit that reading the book had me digging out that ‘Athens Inside/Out’ DVD again. And just as Lurie has me scurrying back to listen again to groups like Love Tractor, Flat Duo Jets and (especially) Pylon, so ‘Kentucky Renaissance’ has me eagerly seeking out Charles Traub’s ‘Edge to Edge’ landscape photographs and Cranston Ritchie’s wonderful experimental work involving panning and tracking. Then too there is the work of Robert C. May and particularly his shots of Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s son Chris (sans Halloween mask) from the early 70s which could easily be taken as blueprints for the Michael Stipe aesthetic from a decade later. Indeed, the shot of Chris Meatyard reclining on an old mattress illuminated from behind by a window apparently shorn of glazing but with a wrapped fragment of sheer curtain tied in its lower frame, might be of Stipe in the old church on Oconee St in Athens and maybe, if the shot was in colour, the light might be green just as it is in what is perhaps my favourite of all R.E.M. songs, the gorgeous ‘Camera’.

Not ever having been what one might call an obsessive about the group it was only on reading Lurie’s book that I came aware that ‘Camera’ is ‘about’ fellow Athens community member Carol Levy, a photographer who shot the band for the rear sleeve of their Hib-Tone debut single and who tragically died in a traffic collision just a day after the US release of the ‘Murmur’ album. Lurie suggests that “Carol Levy’s spirit hangs palpably over the origins of the Athens music scene virtually everywhere you turn”. It is tempting to suggest such a reading is informed at least in part by a knowledge of the tragic circumstances of her death (it is always easier to read significance into the lives of those who leave us young than in those who lead longer lives and -perhaps- fade from narratives) but then again, there is a photo much earlier in the book that shows Lynda and Cyndy Stipe dancing in a club whilst behind them, only just visible, is Carol Levy. There is an immediately energising vitality about this fragment of image that is inescapable, so perhaps there is something in what Lurie says after all. Certainly there is a significant sense of loss, love and presence in ‘Camera’ and it is to R.E.M.’s credit that it is a presence you sense without any knowledge of the song’s origins or meaning. Stipe has said that this pretty much ended his period of ‘autobiographical’ song writing, though the threads of personal meaning are always obtuse and broadly suggestive rather than explicit. To draw another parallel into the world of the Lexington Camera club, where Charles Traub talks about how “photography is about seeing what the world looks like as a picture” then perhaps these early r.e.m. recordings are about seeing what the world looks like as a song. Indeed, in her essay that accompanies the Radius Books publication of Meatyard’s ‘Dolls and Masks’ photographs, Eugenia Parry writes that “the photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard are mystery plays”. One need only change “photographs” to “songs” and insert Meatyard’s initials to see the sentence as an accurate description of ‘Murmur’, ‘Reckoning’ or ‘Fables’.

Maybe there is something in Lurie’s theory after all.

‘Begin The Begin. R.E.M.’s Early Years’ by Robert Dean Lurie is published by Verse Chorus Press
‘Kentucky Renaissance. The Lexington Camera Club and Its Community 1954-1974’ is published by Yale University Press in association with the Cincinnati Art Museum
‘Ralph Eugene Meatyard: Dolls and Masks’ is published by Radius Books
‘Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album’ is published by Prestel books

At the edge

Harry Gruyaert may not be a landscape photographer but as we have noted he is a great photographer of landscape. Perhaps the best proof of this is his ‘Edges’ collection in which Gruyaert selects and sequences photographs made at those points where land meets water meets sky. Land, Sea and Air as Appliance once sang, which is an appropriate reference after all since we have been musing somewhat on James Brooks’ work in recent weeks too. ‘Edges’ is a great book. It is one of those ‘chicken and egg’ collections. In other words it is one of those photography books where you see the relationship between time, intention and realisation play out in the unfolding narrative, where the ’story’ is one of endless, timeless variations on the themes of movement, stasis, flux and firmament. Gruyaert’s photographs map out our relationships with the sea as source of leisure and of commerce. They document the ways in which those relationships affect both the landscapes and the people in those edge lands. Here the cranes, docks and tough raggedy youth of industrial Galician coastal towns; there the glazed-in loneliness of wealthy retirees in a Le Touquet spa hotel. Always grainy, always underexposed. Just so.

Leafing through Edges I am reminded again of Rothko’s paintings. All the same. All different. The devils are in the details; in the subtle shifts of focus, light, shade, composition. Don’t mess with the formula. Don’t push the idea further than it needs to go. Explore the endless possibilities provided by minimal scope. At the edges. What else.

Well what else indeed, except that when I talk about edges I am of course tempted to listen to songs about edges. Making playlists is perhaps the curse of the hapless (almost exclusively) male trapped inside a world of books and films (or photographs) flailing around for a means of reaching a world that he knows exists yet cannot quite seem to reach (or even see). Should this be the case then my own list of songs at the edges (often, though not entirely exclusively, of the edges of landscapes) is shared here as a glimpse into that liminal borderland between my mediated (musical) understanding of that space and yours. And yes, you can expect more landscape themed mixes in the coming months.

Download as a ZIP file

River’s Edge – A Certain Ratio
From The Edge Of Maps – Cody
At the Edge of the Sea – The Wedding Present
Cliff edge – The Bats
Edge Of Town – The Bye Bye Blackbirds
At the Edge of the World – Billy MacKenzie
Water’s Edge – Tsunami
Edge of August – The Windmills
Darkness on the Edge of Town – Bruce Springsteen
At The Edge Of The Wood – Dead Meadow
On the Edge Of – Low
Edge of the World – Let’s Active
Edges And Corners – Standard Fare
Edge Of Everything – Colour Me Wednesday
Safe Around the Edges – His Clancyness
Living On The Edge Of The World – Bruce Springsteen
River’s Edge – Still Corners
Sea Comes At Its Edges – Starry Eyed and Laughing
Edge Of The Sea – Prelude
The Edge of Forever – The Dream Academy

unpop 171

download 171

Spark from Flint to Clay – Ultramarine (from ‘Signals Into Space‘ LP)
First Sign – Rose Elinor Dougall (YouTube)
Cellophane Car – The Stroppies (from ‘Whoosh’ LP. Bandcamp)
Demands – Makthaverskan (7″ single. Bandcamp)
Swebeach – Westkust (from ‘Westkust’ LP. Bandcamp)
O / DESIRE – Public Service (7″ single. Bandcamp)
Draw The Line – Current Affairs (7″ single. Bandcamp)
The Inner Truth – The Vapour Trails (from ‘Godspeed It’ EP. Bandcamp)
Shooting Dennis Hopper Shooting – The Twilight Sad (from ‘It Won’t Be Like This All The Time‘ LP)
The President Can’t Read – Amy Rigby (digital single. Bandcamp)
I Can Only Dream – The Undertones (from ‘The Sin Of Pride’ LP)
We Sell Hope – The Specials (from ‘Encore’ LP)
Cheer up Charley – The Delines (from ‘The Imperial’ LP. Bandcamp)
Looking For Love – Carpenters
Atlantic City – Dawn Landes (from ‘Covers’ EP. Bandcamp)
Darkness Be Gone – Lindi Ortega (from ‘Liberty’ LP)
Goodluck Man – Carson McHone (from ‘Carousel’ LP)
We Were a Happy Crew – Spirogyra (from ‘St. Radigunds’ LP)
Ineffable – Prefab Sprout (from ‘We Trawl The Megahertz’ LP)
End of the Rainbow – Barry Gibb (from ‘In The Now’ LP)

download 171