Sunday, 31 August 2014


Yes, there's a new Doctor. Yes it's further proof, as if we needed any, that Peter Capaldi is a good actor. Yes, the Tardis has had one of its periodic refits. While the credit sequence has had it's biggest 'Changing Rooms' moment yet...

But beneath the hood - it's the same old same-old, isn't it?

When the show first came back, now nine years ago, we knew the most likely way it could fail. We didn't fear the Daleks or the Cybermen, or any other monster of the month. We feared it would spend too much time looking back over the old show, from the observation platform of hindsight. That it would become too obsessed with continuity. There'd be episodes which attempted to reconcile all the different theories as to the Cybermen's origins, and there wouldn't be any general viewers. After all, that was what the old show had itself started to slip into, before it was through.

But we needn't have worried. That never happened. Instead they went back to the Cybermen and just made a whole new origin up. The show may well have had other faults. But by leaping over the primary snare it became something people could actually watch.

Yet disaster finally befell from another direction. Instead of getting caught up in the minutiae of its own history, it became mired in its own cleverness. That whole 'missing Doctor' plotline epitomises everything from recent years. Rather than obsess over actual continuity, it chose to make some up and instead obsess over that.

Meanwhile, general viewers are rewarded by being served the show they didn't watch but always imagined it was. It's been chopped to fit their expectations. Take the Daleks. Even the old TV comic strip was called 'Doctor Who and the Daleks', like they were butter and toast. But that perception was always misconception. The Daleks were off air for five years of the old show. Through reasons beyond the show's control, true. But the show still carried on. Now they have to show up at least once per season. Because that's all part of the tradition we've just invented for ourselves. And the new Doctor has to run into them pretty double quick, just to prove he is the Doctor.

Or take the Victoriana fixation. There was never any sustained link between the show and the Victorian era. True, the Doctor himself could look Edwardian – which is tangentially connected to the Victorian. But that was to make him stand out from the settings, a deliberately counter-intuitive move for a science fiction show designed to make the lead character look - to coin a phrase – differently strange. Notably the most Edwardian Doctors, the First and the Third, had the least to do with Victorian times. Yet people always imagine some such connection. So here it is. The Doctor now has a bunch of mates, the Paternoster gang, waiting obligingly amid all that Victoriana for his next re-visit.

Further, the more the show becomes obsessed with its own faux-lineage, like an upstart nouveau rich family forging coats of arms, the more it struggle to intertwine itself with British cultural lineage. And of course the apex of British history, as far as such stuff is concerned, is the Victorian era. That's when Britain was at it's most Brit-tastic. And this reduction of British history to a theme park of course has a terribly mollifying effect on our perception of history. Just as if Niall Ferguson was the historical consultant, there turns out to have been nothing really wrong with any of it at all. A nation at ease with itself has retconned gay marriage back over a couple of centuries. Well, provided it was kinky.

But it does the most violence to the character of the Doctor. He was once the aristocrat who had chosen to forsake his lineage, and preferred to hang out with the little people. The first time he went to World War Two (ironically, in Moffat's first script), he met up with a gang of orphans and street kids. The very next time he showed up was because Churchill had him on speed-dial.

Of course, 'Who' historicals were never terribly... well, historical. They inevitably said more about the era that produced them than the one they were set in. But there's something insidiously post-modern in this theme-park history, where the past is not only reduced to a dressing-up box but celebrated as such. It suggests history doesn't really happen after all, it's relationship to the present is more a kind of variation on a theme. The way we live is a given. Time is just a production line where more of it gets made.

And that seems part of the mindset which has led to things getting so stuck. I wonder, for example, just who was supposed to be watching 'Into the Dalek'. Though 'Dalek' was never mentioned by name, there's specific dialogue references to it which might seem jarring if you didn't have that context. Yet for those of us who had seen 'Dalek' the whole thing seemed such a thematic rehash they might as well have just re-shot it. We might have guessed how 'Dalek' would end up. And we might have nursed a sneaking sense it wouldn't be with the big, bad Dalek destroying all life on Earth. But the jolt of surprise comes from the effects proceeding have on the characters. We watch the stone and at first we miss the ripples emerging.

This time round, we sat waiting for it all to happen and then it did. Whoever you were, old viewer or new, there would have been a feeling the episode was actually aimed at someone else. But of course that's not the point. The point is that there's more 'Doctor Who'. It's the most long-running SF show of all and there is already more of it.

This was a show which always prided itself on its ability to revitalise itself, something epitomised by the lead character reincarnating. Its secret weapon was a reset button bigger and more powerful than any other, which could be pressed at any point. Well now that button's been pressed. With absolutely no difference whatsoever. Unless you look at the furnishings.

If I was minded to review this show now, on an episode-by-episode basis, it would be more as a cultural barometer, as a signifier of modern Britain. Except Shabogan Jack is already doing all that, doubtlessly much more ably than me, so I don't have to. I shall inevitably be sad enough to watch it. If a particular episode here or there strikes me, I may even be minded to review it. But a blow-by-blow account? Reviewing this cyclic series of events as a TV series is starting to feel like a category error.

The new series of 'Walking Dead' is here. There's a fresh Nordic Noir drama in the celebrated BBC4 Saturday night slot. My recorder's full of stuff I never seem to get a chance to sit down and watch. I expect yours is too. I have a backlog of books to read like you wouldn't believe. That's before you even start on the things I've meant to post here. So do any of us really have to bother with some more of the same, just because of the trademark at the top of it?

Sunday, 17 August 2014


…and were there ever three more disparate gigs it would be hard for the mind of man to imagine...

The Old Market, Brighton, Tues 12th August

”Like swimming underwater in the darkness
Like walking through an empty house
Speaking to an imaginary audience
And being watched from outside by
Someone without a key”

Though I only belatedly discovered Slint and their 1991 album 'Spiderland', it's still possible to see how transformative they were to the hardcore scene they emerged from. It's not much of an exaggeration to compare them to the effect Joy Division had on British punk a decade earlier. (Though in terms of contemporary sales versus long-term influence they were more like the Velvets. If now acclaimed, the world of the time was not waiting for uncategorisable new music to emerge from Louisville, Kentucky and the line above about an “imaginary audience” - that was to prove prophetic.)

Except the influence only partly correlates. If, as Tony Wilson famously phrased it, Joy Division moved the conversation on from “fuck you” to “I'm fucked”, Slint shifted things from “I'm mad, as in really quite cross” to “I'm mad, as in not all here”. They took a music aimed outward, intent on expressing it's disgust with the world, and turned its focus around. However expansive their soundscapes were, they always sounded like they were really mindscapes.

While much hardcore music was great, that may be partly a factor of the fact there was so much hardcore music. With that much mud, some was always likely to stick to the wall. And at it's worst it did play up to the idealised self-image of the teenager – a noble, uncorrupted outsider, a raging visionary refusing any compromise with the system. Slint found the teenager adrift in a senseless world, fearful yet fascinated, both tempestuous and fragile. However much more 'arty' it was, however it seemed more indirect in expression, it was in it's way a more honest account.

Slint's role in music history has now become to plug the missing link between hardcore and what came to be called post-rock. And, formally at least, this can be borne out. While for example quiet/loud juxtapositions were a staple of music in that era (with the Pixies' Black Francis later complaining of “bozo dynamics”), no-one did it quite like Slint. Their music didn't just the volume so much as explode, like a pinhole camera view bursting into cinemascope. And you can hear that effect all over Mogwai.

But, unlike so much post-rock, Slint were never simply smart or clever. As Drew Daniel said, “one can still detect the malingering presence of metal and hardcore”. ('The Wire' 362, Apr '14) Slint weren't musical polymaths so much as sonic psychopaths. Their music tended to be made up of simple elements thrown into disorienting combinations. Hardcore wasn't the flat ground they left behind when they took off, it stayed part of them and they were happy to leave their roots showing. Listen, for example, to the chugging bassline of 'Nosferatu Man'. And this hardcore bedrock stopped things straying into the opposite teenage cliché – the mawkishness of the lovelorn, the self-pitying life of the trustafarian. The quote from 'Dom Aman up above continues with the lines “He laughed at himself/ He felt he knew what that was”. All identities seemed uncertain.

Two scenarios always come to mind when listening to 'Spiderland', both part-inspired by their preference for mumbled narrative over conventional vocals. Firstly there's the old private eye movies such as 'The Big Sleep', with their deadpan voice-overs as if such flat vocal inflections will somehow impose narrative coherence over a grotesque nightmare, line up the surreal chaos into an orderly set of clues. Those films were of course influenced by expressionism, whose crazily askew angles and sharp light/dark delineations always seem analogous to their music. (Perhaps needless to say 'Nosferatu Man' is named after Murnau's 1922 film.)

But they're also somehow reminiscent of a teenage diary, written not so much as an account of events as an attempt to make a map of the world. The mumbled narratives, as if made of words that can only barely be spoken aloud, make the Spiderland it's spidery handwriting. The sound evokes a still moonlit night, in an open yet private space, some sort of solitary refuge. (Like the quarry pool of the sleeve, only in darkness.) All sounds carry, even the most mumbled vocals or the clattering of the drums. Then, just when your ears are attuned to the small sounding big, the big stuff crashes in...

Some have questioned whether Slint are really a band to see live. Which is in some ways an illustrative question, throwing into relief the way their music is simultaneously expansive and intimate. Certainly there's no live show. The front of the stage is occupied by no-one at all; Brian McMahon narrates from the side of the stage, as though trying to describe the music rather than present it. He stands stiffly at the mike, like he's never got used to the posture. The few words they say to the audience, I was later told by more veteran fans, count as effusive.

And listening to Slint does feel very much like a one-on-one experience, pretty much like reading a diary would. It's reminiscent of Kurt Cobain's description of listening to the Raincoats – you feel like you're eavesdropping, and if they knew you were there it would ruin everything. But in many ways the fact that, seemingly against the odds, the music manages to overcome all that and reach across to everyone makes the gig more of an event. Even today, even after it's been taken up as an influence by so many, it's not really music which fits in anywhere. It's just music which works...

'Breadcrumb Trail', from London...

Sticky Mike's Frog Bar, Brighton, Wed 6th August

Last time I managed to catch Wolf Eyes live, four years ago, I called them “the Stooges of noise music”. (Perhaps partly because both hail from Michigan.) And if you thought the Stooges were the Stooges of noise music, then clearly you're yet to experience Wolf Eyes!

Their website states “there is no denying the homemade nuclear war Wolf Eyes has left on music”. And the boys aint' kidding! After rock music long became a corporate brand, something to stick over car ads, the old fuck-you attitude gloriously returns. The music's an eviscerating blast, like one of those ray guns in SF films that reduce you to a skeleton. Intense and exhilarating.

Previously they seemed perfectly pitched between out-there rock and noise music. This time it was like the venn diagrams flipped the other way – they'd lessened the experimental/impro leanings to become a rock band, but still with the sheer abandon of noise. While much noise music just sounds like rock without the tunes, Wolf Eyes throw in just enough structure to gain some traction. The combination becomes virtuous, like a cocktail drug. Brighton Noise exulted “they’ve started playing actual 'songs' and they’re really good at it!” (Though newbies may want to note those inverted commas. Wembley Arena is still some way away.)

As if by way of contrast, after three support acts all solo turns, they stride on almost as a parody of a band-as-gang – sporting cut-off denim and indoor shades. For the most part the drummer played what I'm reliably informed is called a “box of tricks”, some dial-sprouting gizmo slung at his hip, meaning they effectively line up and face the audience off. I think we probably blinked first.

A while ago I quoted Mark E Smith's classic line “R+R as primal scream”. It's not so much you can't hear the words in all the cacophony, as you imagine they must have somehow gone beyond words – broken through into primitive shards of sound. It was like a jigsaw in reverse - a picture getting chopped into bits then, instead of being boxed, getting slung in your face. As said over the very different Sigur Ros, the less you're able to make out the words the more significance they take on in your mind.

For all their recent discoveries of the rudiments of song structure, they're still savvy enough to keep it to a relatively short set. It becomes a sudden jolt to the senses, a short sharp shock. Certainly, after buying a CD from their last show I found I didn't really play it much. It's a visceral experience best undergone live. And they still punctuated proceedings with a longer, more lumbering piece. If you want to keep with the Stooges analogies, it would have been their 'We Will Fall'.

Through all this sonic assault, some guy still managed to take notes as they were playing. Mate, that's even nerdier than me!

Doing their stuff in Rome...

Ropetackle Centre, Shoreham, Fri 25th July

Martin Simpson's guitar-playing and songwriting has given him one of those impeccable English folk pedigrees, a CV spattered with names like June Tabor and the Albion Band. A reliable source of gossip claims he's been nominated for the Radio Two Folk Awards a record-breaking twenty-three times.

But as if all that wasn't enough, he also led a kind of double life. For the folk-tuned Englishman is part dude, having spent many years in America soaking up the traditional music that lies State-side. Indeed his own website emphasises how his career has “combined the diverse elements of British, Afro-American and old-timey music”.

Which of course is what you might expect. After all, what's in that term 'pedigree'? People talk about folk styles as if they're putting dogs in for Crufts, proud of how they've preserved their uncontaminated breed. And that's nothing but nonsense. Folk has always lived in the cross-breeds, in the inter-changes. Folk purists can almost end up spouting the old right-wing saw about migration destroying culture. While what migration actually does is vitalise culture. Popular culture works like water. It always tries to reach the lowest level, and cover the widest area it possibly can. it doesn't take to being siloed up. Try to pen it and it will respond by trying to burst those banks. Seriously, how many folk songs are there about itinerants and restless wanderers? Compared to the number about those who stood in one place and refused to move? And the mass migration from Europe to America is a classic case in point. Think of the way English folk tunes resurfaced reworked in Bob Dylan tracks.

And as if to prove this point, Simpson is this night performing with Dom Flemons of American string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Sporting braces and a boater hat like he's just stepped from some sheet music illo, broad of shoulder and still broader of smile, Flemons plays off American influences against Simpson's English like the great tradition of call-and-response. He casually yet significantly calls the Atlantic “the pond”. The opening number, a cheery crowd-warmer on the popular subject of death by syphillis, segues from Simpson' English version to Flemon's American.

What follows is a whistlestop tour of cross-Atlantic folk history including - but not limited to - black performers performing in blackface, the effects of the American Civil War on the Manchester garment industry and vowel habits among southern Americans. While Simpson largely sticks to guitar and banjo, Flemons plays everything including - but not limited to - the electric kettle. (At which point Simpson instigates the crowd to cry “Judas!” at him. But it wasn't plugged in, so technically it's still okay.) For all this instrumental eclecticism, however, I may well have enjoyed most the point where they both played banjo. The banjo has a surprisingly spiky sound, given its hokey reputation.

At times you feel like they have stored in their heads not so much a great old songbook as a whole era where music was protean, before the rulebook had been written and you could pull a song together out of anything you chose. Which leads to a night of great highlights.

However... I take the point, of course I do, that authenticity in this music is naught but fool's gold, and that humour was a perpetual element. The harder that people's lives were in those times, the less they wanted songs that simply rubbed those hardships in. And Flemon's adoption of the role of Simpson's comic foil was often effective, like they were the Chuck D and Flavour Flav of folk. But for my taste there was perhaps just a little too much leaning towards music hall and show tunes. It became like a meal more composed of entrees and desserts than the actual meal part.

Yet even if that caveat preventing me from finding this a great gig, it was still well worth attending.

Given the double-act nature, we really need both a Simpson and a Flemons clip. And before you ask whether the Ropetackle has been enlarged recently, these are from Womad...

Saturday, 9 August 2014


This time, stencils found while wandering my home town of Brighton. All the news they found unfit to print makes it onto the walls. As ever, for the full set go to Flickr.

More to come. (Albeit mixed in with the usual sort of stuff…)

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Saturday, 26 July 2014


Lucky is the reader who clicks on this link to find another of my celebrated Spotify playlists.

While previous examples have almost exulted in the eclectic this one seems to stick on post-punk for most of its running time. Even if it doesn't start that way. And ends in a squall of feedback, like being caught out without a mac. But then post-punk was pretty eclectic in and of itself. I'd tell you why any of this was if I knew myself...

Beth Gibbons & Rustin Man: Resolve
Tunng: Sweet William
Morgan Fisher (aka RW Atom, aka Hybrid Kids): You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling
The Flying Lizards: Summertime Blues
The Pop Group: Thief Of Fire
The Slits: So Tough (John Peel BBC Radio 1 Session)
Blurt: The Fish Needs a Bike
The Drones: The Minotaur
The Fall: Craigness
The Tiger Lillies: The Story of the Man Who Went Out Shooting
Alternative TV: Nasty Little Lonely
Can: Deadly Doris
The Jesus And Mary Chain: Head (Single Version)
Kyuss: Writhe
Mission Of Burma: Einstein's Day
Fugazi: 23 Beats Off
Gang Of Four: Love Like Anthrax
Cannibal Ox: Ox Out the Cage

”Writer in bed insane
Clutches pen in hand
The scrawl he wrote...”

As ever some tracks remain unspotified. I wanted to use this New Age Steppers track and what I would think of as one of Throbbing Gristle's best-known numbers. Imagine them embedded in there somehow, if you've a will to.

Friday, 18 July 2014


A sequel of sorts to these posts on the scenes in Germany, the UK and the USA.

Never heard of the radical underground music scene going on in Sixties France? Well that's probably because there wasn't much of one. If, as I keep suggesting, the music was tied with the social and political upheavals of the time, then France should have been a contender of Brandoesque proportions – it had more upheavals than any other developed nation. Yet, while these did tie in to artistic movements, such as New Wave cinema, music made for something of an exception to the rule. (Check out Italy from the same era and you might come away with a similar story.)

Opinion remains divided whether France produces popular music which simply doesn't export, or whether it simply doesn't bother with the stuff at all. But that matters little here, for both point us in the same direction.

On the other hand, of course, there never was a rule that wasn't made to break. So let's home in on a couple of notable exceptions...


Reader, please indluge a personal digression...

When you're young, you can be very sure of yourself. The two or three things you know line up neatly in your head, free of tangles. So, to my mid-teen mind, music was a pretty clear-cut affair. Hawkwind were quite clearly the highpoint of everything which had happened since the onset of recorded sound. Which left Gong (pictured up top) to pick up the silver. Simples.

Not that my schoolmates were always easy to convince of this, and sometimes pearls fell before swine. I remember showing the colourful, handwritten cover from 'Live Floating Anarchy' (below) to one of my few remaining associates. He stood looking at it in some bemusement, before finally handing it back. “Is it music?” he asked hesitantly, “or is it just messing about?” “I'm really not sure,” I beamed back. But he seemed unaware that this was actually an advantage.

Yet, while I love Hawkwind to this day, over time I lost a lot of interest in Gong. It was partly hearing the later albums (from 'Shamal'), after instigators Daveid Allen and Gilli Smyth had left, which were quite definitely music without the messing about. While the old Gong had been the soundtrack to patching your jeans, things had turned to swish Euro-prog. They even had... I can barely manage to type the words... proper covers. Ugh!

But somehow, like capillary action, such sheer competent awfulness seemed creep back into the earlier stuff. Concept album trilogies on the theme of hippies getting stoned? It stopped sounded appealing. With Hawkwind aiming squarely for the systematic derangement of the senses, Gong seemed by comparison mere blissed-out whimsey.

Yet, as this clip demonstrates so perfectly, sometimes they really could go off. It makes an advantage of the very thing that would later rip apart Gong, that the French never really took to being hippies. Allen and Smyth blow in among those neat beards and button-up shirts like foreign weeds. But here the two sides blend so perfectly and effortlessly it creates a whole new thing – for which I'm not sure we even have a name yet.

Their “just messing about” is grounded and given shape by the more skilful and disciplined playing of the musicians; while the free-form zaniness gives the players a focus and an edge which keeps them away from their more noodly tendencies. It's really not so far away from how the Magic Band worked with the Captain. Plus I also love the way the backdrop isn't some lava-lamp effect but Vertov-style silhouettes of the band setting up. C'est superbe!


These young people of today. With their I-pods, their apps and that Spotify business on their mobiles. Just try telling them this, and they won't believe you...

...but in my school library there were precisely two books on rock music. Given the absence of anything similar on the shelves at home, they represented the sum total of knowledge on the subject in my world. There was the one with words in it and the one with pictures in it. Ever the English whizz, I went for the one with words in, the 'NME Book of Rock'. Then, in what seemed the logical next move, I read it.

But of course the school library was expecting that book back. In fact, from previous experience they were likely to show a strange vociferousness on that sort of subject. And another of the many things lacking in my world was a photocopier. But, in an unusual modernist gesture, I had been permitted access to my Mum's manual typewriter. So if I came across an interesting-sounding entry, I'd preserve it for posterity by copying it out verbatim.

I kept the resultant sheets of A4 in a battered red binder. My typewriter permissions didn't extend as far as being allowed to change the ribbon, a piece of maintenance now some years overdue. But provided you squinted hard at the increasingly greying text from under bright light, you could make out most of the words. Well, most of most of them.

That red binder was like my lo-fi, Babbage engine version of Wikipedia. Only with less sound files and edit wars.

It was a bit like a hungry man copying out menus from restaurants he couldn't get to. Or afford to eat there even if he could. I dreamt... I dreamt of the day when I would track down the musical sources of those sacred entries. Those strange and enthralling names – Captain Beefheart, King Crimson, the Velvet Underground – so different to the day-world of school, where things had names like Dr. Neville, Mr. Murgatroyd and Further Maths. That voyage of discovery, it would be my mission, even if it took me a lifetime.

Which is pretty much the way it worked out.

Now one of the most enticing names contained in that red folder was Magma. They were French. Which was pretty strange to start off with. Music was English. Or American. Except for the Germans who liked heavy metal. But French?

For some reason the book didn't even mention what's normally considered Magma's killer app, singing in an imaginary language that supposedly came from another planet. But it did say this:

“Formed to perform enormous, megalomaniac oratorios concerning Earth's future... Magma fall by their humourless and irredeemably pretentious concept.”

Well, naturally I was desperate to hear more.

Which required some exertion of patience. In time I'd come to hear Captain Beefheart, I'd come to hear King Crimson, I'd come to hear the Velvet Underground - and yet Magma remained elusive. Of course I'd continue to hear their name, scattered like breadcrumbs along a young music aficionado's path. The people who liked the maddest stuff, who got interested in a band just at the point everybody else was giving up on them, they always seemed to rate them. John Lydon was rumoured a fan. There was a brief rush of excitement when they played London some years ago. But all the while without my ears ever striking pay-dirt.

Today of course the instant hit of the interweb means I can hear them any time I want, without having to get up out of this chair. And of course it's correspondingly harder to find that time. So I've pretty much just dabbled in the odd YouTube link.

Added to which, they're not particularly YouTubeable. Listening to Magma clearly isn't an instant hit. You're supposed to get into them the old way, the way I got into Captain Beefheart or Pere Ubu, slowly and piecemeal, gradual acclimatisation. It's like the way LPs had a natural pause between sides, where they'd wait for you to come and turn them over. While CDs just run.

Their videos can look like you'd stumbled across the rituals of some strange cult, with no clue what it all means to initiates. For which I suppose the word is “apt”. It's not like Frank Zappa in any particular, but it is like Frank Zappa in terms of breadth and scope. Dip into two bits of Zappa from two different eras and you'd have no idea how those dots joined up – it's like that. In terms of what they do, what sort of music they make, it seems bewildering. In, you know, a good way.

Their whole other-language schtick, however grandiosely absurd, is actually kind of fitting. Discovering a new band like thisis like hearing a strange new language. At first all you could hear was the sheer otherness of it. But after a while you could pick out phrases, and even start putting them together...

But one thing I have found and do enjoy is the way they'll blend rock and classical styles so unselfconsciously, unlike the self-important look-at-me ostentation that so beset their era. And the way they don't use classical elements for ornamentation, sporting string sections like bling, but instead take up the power and force of classical music. Their name, I would guess, was chosen to combine monumentality with fluidity. And just like the magma layer oozes on with no heed paid to time and tide, they remain active to this day!

If anyone reading this is an initiate, who can speak that other-world language and could suggest a good starting point for full-album immersion, I'd be grateful for any pointers. Which wouldn't necessarily have to come on typewritten sheets in battered red binders. Just preferably.

Coming soon! The Sixties underground in Luxembourg. (Only kidding…)

Friday, 11 July 2014


“Total assault on the culture by any means necessary, including rock and roll, dope, and fucking in the streets.”

Of course everyone reckons America to be the epicentre of the Sixties Underground, while Britain just had designer hippies prancing down Carnaby Street in variously off shades of paisley and Germany not even in the picture. Totally wrong on both counts. (See the supporting evidence here and here.) But there's no denying it was a centre.

America at that time was like a cultural Hadron Collider, all sorts of things crashing together, the ensuing explosions creating new particles which didn't even have names yet. Inevitably the particles collided with each other as much as they did 'The Man', which we'll try to convey too...

The Velvet Underground

Of course we have to start with the Velvets – it's just hard to figure out where. They're so direct, so confrontational, and yet simultaneously so elusive. After some head-scratching, I came up with this...

Famously, John Cale first worked with pioneering minimalists the Theatre of Eternal Music, and brought his viola drones with him to the band. But crucially, they didn't so much combine them with rock'n'roll drive as convince you the two had belonged together all along. They were savagely primitive and furiously intellectual, out-there and street-level, at one and the same time. Their sound's like being set on simultaneously, a knife blade to the gut while a thesaurus whacks you round the head. A lucid frenzy if ever there was one.

I've never liked the linear notions of the term 'avant garde' all that much. But perhaps this is the one time it can be justifiably used. They weren't kidding with that word 'underground'. And sometimes notoriety does have greater currency than fame. Their lack of commercial success really was counterposed by their massive influence – it's no exaggeration to say they changed everything. Suffice to say that the long-running alternative music festival All Tomorrow's Parties is named after one of their tracks.

Despite their involvement with the Factory and its multimedia Exploding Plastic Inevitable events there isn't much actual footage of the band in full flight. You'll find with this clip of 'Venus in Furs' the visuals don't synch with the music. But it's still cool...

Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention

Inhabiting the contrary coasts to the existential New Yorkers and their opposite in about every respect were their perennial arch-foes - the Mothers of Invention. While the Velvets took up sunglasses and icy cool, the Mothers donned frocks and mugged and gurned. While the Velvet's universe was black-and-white, the Mothers erupted with dayglo colour. While the Velvets were darkly realist and from-the-streets, the Mothers couldn't have been more surreal. Ructions were to ensue.

Lou Reed described Frank Zappa as “the most untalented musician I've ever heard. He can't play rock'n'roll because he's a loser.” The only thing the could agree on was that they both hated hippies. Which in the context of the times meant absolutely everybody else.

'King Kong' kicks off with Zappa explaining the band's mission statement. Which was basically “annoy people. For both personal and political reasons.”
Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band

But if the Mothers were the Velvets' primary antagonists, the Magic Band were their opposite number. Against the Velvets' crushing nihilism, the Magic Band's default sound was a resounding joyousness. Instead of held drones, their music bounded along like strangeness on springs. The band have a reputation for befuddling difficulty, for setting listeners sonic puzzles, appealing only to chin-strokers and ponderers. Nothing could be further from the truth! The good Captain's maxim was “I play music. Too many work it.”

Which makes it all the more bizarre to hear about the scarily 'cult-like' way much of that music was recorded. You hear some of it, and worry whether you can listen and keep to the ban on slave produce.
But anyway, just check 'em out! Running through 'Electricity' on Cannes beach in 1968

The Jefferson Airplane

In the punk era the two big Californian cities, San Francisco and Los Angeles, competed to create great bands. The Dead Kennedys, for example, were from SF while X hailed from LA. Which makes sense, of course. Approximately the distance between London and Glasgow, the cities are close enough to be aware of one another, but distant enough to have their own identity.

Which makes it passing strange that the same wasn't true in the Sixties. LA produced Zappa, Beefheart, Love and the Doors. SF... well, even if you take flower-wafting dippy hippies like Scott Mckenzie out the equation, it's still pretty much the side of Sixties music I don't like to listen to. It's heresy to some, but I've never seen the appeal of the Grateful Dead. To me its just meander, music to wave joss sticks around to.

Perhaps at the time SF's focus was simply elsewhere. The city was such a cultural and political hotspot that the music became (to coin a phrase) instrumental to it all. It wasn't primary. There to be the soundtrack to the love-in or the riot, but not the stuff calling the kids out on the streets.

But there's an exception to every rule. And the scene's other major band, Jefferson Airplane, were as unlike the Dead as the Stones were to the Beatles. Okay, their output was uneven. The Sixties were uneven. And when it worked...

This clip of them performing 'White Rabbit' and 'Somebody to Love' on American TV perhaps best sums up the difference between them and the Dead. That crazy psychedelic stuff worked best when stuffed inside actual songs. It's the way it then fights to get out, makes the song strange, misshapen and unpredictable. Like one of those giant bubbles which stop being perfectly round but undulate weirdly and throw up loads of odd reflections. Without the song for it to contend with it's like the bubble's burst, and you're left with hippy noodlings all over the floor. And unlike the Dead the Airplane could write great, massively memorable songs, and had Grace (“what, me, not English?”) Slick as a fantastic declamatory singer. Perhaps even as great as Amon Duul's Renate Knaup.

And to all those who still indulge those tired stereotypes about “mellow” hippies, this was the band who sang lyrics like “all your private property is target for your enemy!”

Oh, and the videotape does warp at one point. That's not the bananas kicking in...


The MC5 were of course associated with John Sinclair's White Panthers, a kind of rise to the dare of the Black Panthers, and source of the manifesto quoted up top.

They were a Detroit band when Detroit was on fire. And, as mentioned in the earlier Krautrock piece, that's not a metaphor. They're a reminder there was a time when rock'n'roll wasn't just something to wash a Coke down with, and as such they're another band whose massive influence well exceeded their reach. While The Velvets were punks before their time, the MC5 are the missing link which proves there was no fracture point between punk and hippie music at all.

Okay, this is strictly the start of the Seventies... who's counting? Welcome to 'Kick out the Jams', played to a home crowd at Wayne State University, Detroit. Apparently filmed for local TV, which is why the last word in the infamous title line is conspicuous by its absence. (Though all the annoying logo stuff scrawled across the screen has been added by some subsequent self-publicist.)

The Fugs

The term rough music fits the Fugs the best. By popular tradition, enemies of the community were subject to a barrage of song and noise, the sonic equivalent of throwing rotten vegetables. Raucous and free-form, they didn't sound so much like the MC5 - a band always up for playing after a protest rally - as the music you hear bashed out on bin lids during the rally.

They took to this most literally by attempting to exorcise/levitate the Pentagon as a protest against Vietnam. Then included it as a track on their next album. The FBI was later found to have kept a file on them, listing their songs which they found to be "vulgar and repulsive and most suggestive”. (It was quite a long list.)

And, despite those who stick to the lazy slur “the hippies sold out”, they always stuck to their (metaphorical) guns. In the mid-Nineties, learning that for the anniversary of the Woodstock festival someone was planning a commercialised event, they countered by organising the Real Woodstock Festival. Their activities were constrained by the sad death of Tuli Kupferberg in 2010. (Though not ended, and I even got to see them live in London the next year.)

'CIA Man' (unfortunately without visuals)...

David Peel and the Lower East Side

David Peel was either the last word in self-parody or above and beyond the whole thing. I was never sure which, and I don't suppose he was. He's seen here treating the David Frost show to 'Hippie From New York City', with John and Yoko in tow. I always imagined he made the words up on the spot, but here he gives every indication of reading them. What he can have been up to, to screw with his short-term memory like that, I simply can't imagine. Is it any good? I'm really not sure. But what it is, is great...

...and to play us out

Iggy and the Stooges

This is the celebrated “with added peanut butter” clip from the Cincinnati pop festival. Perhaps more of a demonstration of what an out-there performer Iggy was than the Stooges as a band. (In the unlikely event you've never heard the Stooges before, go here.)

Perhaps what really makes it is the slightly clueless commentary, “well, the kids really seem to go for this stuff... whatever it is.”

Coming soon! We're not done with that Sixties business yet...

Saturday, 5 July 2014


(A sort of sequel to an earlier post on Krautrock.)

“It's not just some sort of scruffy club you can join, you're in or you're out... it's like being a criminal.”

Okay, the Sex Pistols song gave the late Seventies a catchier title. But in the process it's baseless year-zero rhetoric burnt the bridges to an equally great era of music, for which Britain was an epicentre. Punk didn't happen as a reaction to this music, punk was more an attempt to get back to it.


You couldn't overstate the importance of Hawkwind if you tried. They're a credible candidate for the most important band in the history of everything, ever. Not just through defining the Sixties underground sound but by heavily influencing punk, post-punk and dance music.

Like the Velvet Underground they had a huge visual element to their live performance. But, also like the Velvets, sadly very little from their classic era was filmed. This is a video they made of their token hit 'Silver Machine' as an alternative to having to appear on 'Top Of the Pops'. (You can tell it's made for TV because Stacia keeps her clothes on.) Lemmy took the lead vocals, according to him because he was the only one who could hit the high notes.

Though covering 'Silver Machine' with the re-united Pistols, when asked to present a Radio Two show more recently John Lydon demonstrated his hardcore fan status by choosing the far freakier 'You Shouldn't Do That' instead. As would I, if YouTube had yielded any actually visual videos for it. 'Silver Machine' bears about the same place in the heart of Hawkfans as 'She Loves You'does for Beatles buffs - you like it, sure, but you think of it as an entrée at best.

Black Sabbath

Accept the linear notion that the Sixties Underground was nothing but prog, and another bridge burnt is its role in the genesis of hard rock and metal. Black Sabbath were of course the instigator of Seventies hard rock (which like all influential bands led to results both good and ill), but in their early days were very much seen as part of the underground. This bio is surely right to state “they still are a heavy underground band.”

Having gone for the obvious with 'Silver Machine', I feel obliged to follow up with the scene's other great unexpected hit - 'Paranoid'.(Which the band always claimed they speed-wrote to fill an album deemed otherwise too short for release.)

Like Hawkwind they actually excelled in longer tracks. But unlike Hawkwind their schtick was not sensory overload so much as pulverizing force, down-tuned guitars providing riffs so ponderous and droney they almost stop time in its tracks. If Hawkwind sought to hurl you up into the heavens, like some shaman cosmonaut, Sabbath strived to bury you alive under layers of sound.

But 'Paranoid'... somehow it manages to be more representative than 'Silver Machine'. Teenage angst writ large then hammered home with a piledriving riff – isn't that what it's all about? And check out the video…

Pink Floyd

it's a bit like Blake's famous line “did he who make the lamb make thee?” Is this really the same band who subjected us to 'Division Bell'? 

Well technically yes, but actually not. 'Set The Controls For the Heart of the Sun' borrows its title from a Ray Bradbury short story, and bears about the same relationship to generic rock music as he did to standard SF. It simply does what it says on the lid. You can hear its influence on trance-out acts like Om to this day.

Soft Machine

History perhaps wasn't kind to Soft Machine. There was a period they were seen as the central band of the British underground, the lot that would not just headline the UFO club but almost define it. They were to London what the Velvets were to New York. Alas, the candle that blazes twice as bright burnt half as long. The key members left early and they fell into becoming a boring proggy jazz-rock outfit, the sort of thing music buffs listen to on expensive hi-fis.

But never mind that – let's talk about their heyday! If Faust were the Dadaists of the Sixties underground then Soft Machine were the Surrealists, less assaulting music than undermining by infecting it with strangeness and wry wit. Though of course their name came from the Burroughs novel it also suggests at the soft, morphing forms of Dalian paintings.

Above all, their music's funny, in and of itself - just as the Magic Band's output was. A humour amply conveyed by this track being named 'Eamonn Andrews', after the evening TV presenter. Or by Robert Wyatt's tale (told on the back of their third album) of the first time they played the Albert Hall. A diligent doorman resolutely refused the scruffy hippy admission. (“'I've got to play in there', I said. 'You must be kidding, son', he said, 'they only have proper music in there'. Not that night they didn't.”)


As any fule kno, many Sixties underground bands were actually a huge influence on punk. But were they just exceptions to the rule? What for example of Caravan? With their softly spoken laid-back pastoralism, were they the very thing punk sought to destroy? After all, their subject matter tended to be sly-wink innuendo about getting stoned and shagging, neither of which seem terribly transgressive today.

But so what? We shouldn't let the battle lines of the past define where we can go now. And sometimes what you want to eat's a flaming chilli burger, at other's it's some soft-flavoured home cooking.

It's clear enough by now that the prog that has dated, that can just be sealed up and consigned to history, is the bombastic, technocratic, look-at-me indulgences of ELP and the like. Caravan, conversely, were made from English understatement, droll whimsical humour (they sing like they have the permanent hint of a smile), a love of indolence and (yes really) a fine gift for melody. Their music sailed rather than being driven by any kind of engine. And, fittingly for the band that most epitomised the Canterbury sound, what could be more English than their rolling numbers? A Caravan track always seem so redolent of the soft undulations of the South Downs I live among.

King Crimson

This was the beginning of the end, really. King Crimson were definitely the start of prog, if more genuinely strange and deranged than that term normally connotes. But history is never neat and '21st Schizoid Man' from 1969 (supporting the Stones in Hyde Park) couldn't be a more classic Sixties Underground track – heavy riffing, sticking it to the man – just delivered by those who were ending it in that very same moment.

And to play us out...

The Social Deviants 

...were also known as the Deviants, or the Pink Fairies whenever the band fell out with singer Mick Farren (he of the quote up top). They were essentially the British MC5, even down to the stick-it-to-the-man shock politics, the White Panther connection and (above all) the wild Afros.

Unlike the MC5, however, they may be best remembered historically rather than musically. This one's described by the band themselves as “fairly long... and loud.” Both are true. It's a fuzzy clip of a free concert in Hyde Park. (Yes, another one. How did they avoid double-booking them?) And such a thing probably does sum up the era best. For better or... you know, the other one. (Skip at the very least the first minute.)

However, while long and loud it is, those with enough powers of endurance to click through to the second part will be reassured to find the thing ends with the reassuring sight of a British bobby.

(NB While the 'revolutionary' rhetoric of the times can have a naïve charm today, it's a bit harder to smile indulgently at the suggestion that you “grab the tit of the chick next to you”. Not against that part of the power structure, then, Mick?)

Coming soon! More of this sort of thing...