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Saturday, 17 April 2021

KRAFTWERK’S ’AUTOBAHN’ (OR HOW THE FUTURE GOT ITS HAIR CUT)



If you were to read ’Future Days: Krautrock and the Rebuilding of Modern Germany’ (as we just were), you’d find David Stubbs is scrupulous in dealing with his subject. So much so, he’ll magnanimously dole out page counts to each significant band, sometimes over-riding his own taste. And at times this shows. 

The problem is of course not different preferences. He’s welcome to his claim the earlier Moog-based Popol Vuh outclassed the later years, even if I think the opposite. The problem is when he gets to those later albums, and is inevitably less interesting when he is less interested.

But the half-full side of this is when he gets to the stuff he does like. I am one of those too much of a Krautrock fan to really rate Kraftwerk, and inevitably prefer the three albums before ‘Autobahn’. (The ones the band themselves would seem to want erased from history.) Whereas he runs through them only looking for early glimmerings of future highways, wondering aloud when they’ll get their hair cut. It’s like listening to ‘A Hard Days Night’, but only for portents of ‘Sergeant Pepper’. You miss what’s there looking for what isn’t.

At its worst it’s like the guy in the next seat who loudly grumbles about the music you’d like to just listen to. Yet when he (finally) reaches ’Autobahn’ he writes one of the best pieces on it I’ve read, worth the wait and quite possibly worth the price of admission itself.

If you want a more traditional version of a road number, Bruce Springsteen’s ’Born To Run’ was released the same year. With overblown trying-too-hard lyrics (“at night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines”), and an insistence road travel can be made into some sort of hero’s journey, the combination of cliche and self-importance is tiresome to take.

Whereas Kraftwerk don’t drive to celebrate their freedom or escape conformity. They start up the car and just go for a drive, to see the view as it stretches away from you, to hear the swish of the vehicles passing the other way. An experience millions of West Germans must have had every day. The transcendent doesn’t need adding to the banal, its already to be found there.

Better than Springsteen, look to the contemporary Berlin school to see electronic music being used to become metaphysical, to transcend human scale. ’Autobahn’, conversely, is wilfully literal. “As figurative and indisputable,” Stubbs points out, “as Emil Schult’s eerily bright deceptively banal and depthless cover artwork”. Which includes the dashboard of a car in the lower section, making clear what we see is a driver’s eye view.


Flip it and there’s the band in the back seats, as if a reverse image. In a splendid anecdote, he tells of how the press launch got journalists to ride the autobahn listening to… yeah, you guessed. It’s like music was thrown in reverse gear, and it was no longer the epic but the quotidian which needed capturing.

The straightforward lyrics, once translated, sometimes seem to be reciting what’s on that cover art more than conveying any actual journey. (“We drive, drive, drive on the Autobahn/ Road surface is a grey band/ White stripes, green border”.) Stubbs correctly sees this straighforwardness as an artistic statement in itself, as something to champion. Smart people are not afraid to do simple things.

But they did pick up on and run with an underlying feature of road songs - the song is about the road. Roads aren’t there to take you somewhere, the road itself is the escape, motion is not means but end. Stubbs calls it “a lengthly journey that takes you no place but deeper into Germany itself”. Ironically it’s an American term, “interstate”, which best conveys this liminal state.

There’s a naive primary-coloured celebration of immediate things. And it seems similar to the joy of a child endlessly pushing a toy truck back and forth across the carpet, immersed yet straight-faced. As if the world was some giant child’s toy, built from bricks. But the accelerator-pedal exuberance of a three-minute road song is measured, spread across the twenty-two minutes. ’Autobahn’ doesn’t race, it glides. Even Neu!, the other great travelling band of Krautrock, have their moments of touching the accelerator. Kraftwerk are all cruise control. (An edited version became a hit single. But it’s really the equivalent of a trailer for a film.) If Krautrock had a penchant for combining the euphoric with the robotic, ’Autobahn’ is almost the definitive expression.

What could have inspired this? We’re used to reading histories of British music about kids growing up with bomb sites for playgrounds. Yet of course Germany’s war damage was far greater, in some estimates covering four-fifths of infrastructure. And then, in a bizarre twist, their post-war recovery was much faster than ours. And two seemingly contradictory descriptions of West Germany thereby recur in Stubbs’ book. One in which it’s a literal and cultural ruin, the ravaged residue of a diseased ideology. And another where it’s a consumerist Mecca, all shining and new. Both these things shouldn’t be true at the same time. In fact, they probably are.

Stubbs quotes Faust’s Jean-Herve Peron: “There was indeed a vacuum in Germany - not only a physical vacuum, with all these areas being bombed, all these anti-spaces - there was also an intellectual and emotional emptiness which had to be filled.” The end of everything that had gone before, that was already underway. The Germany outside Kraftwerk’s studio could be seen as a canvas scraped back to blank, to be rebuilt according to your liking. The panning of the synth lines suggests the open spaces spied from the car windscreen, but also the broad crenellation-free facades of modern architecture.

It’s a much-commented irony that Krautrock bands, though so concerned with creating a new German identity for themselves, had to get out of Germany to get noticed. This was normally Britain and France. But Stubbs point out Kraftwerk first got followers in America - the home of the road song suddenly took to imports! Perhaps partly because they had convinced the New World that post-war Germany was itself a new world.

Look again at that cover. Kraftwerk were openly indebted to the Bauhaus, but perhaps owed more to Pop Art. Jonathan Richman had sung, on his road song, “I’m in love with the modern world”. But he’s a romantic adventurer encountering the modern world and drawing inspiration from it, the way his predecessors might have from the great American wilderness. Kraftwerk’s vocodered vocals make them sound like a product of the modern world. Though Stubbs compares it to Hockney it reminds me more of Ed Ruscha’s paintings of Gas Stations. (See ‘Standard Station’, 1966, below.)


In an old post on Pop Art I quoted Eric M Stryker: “Two technologies embodied this new media ideology: the CinemaScope screen, with its dramatic expansion of the field of vision, and the windshield of an American car, which provided a panoramic view of the city. Both the windscreen and the movie screen were… communication devices through which images of the city are formed and transmitted. The popular audience who receives these images is locked in an interactive loop with the realities constructed both in the movies and in the city itself.”

And while we’re on Pop Art, there’s another comparison…

The first Kraftwerk song I heard was ‘Pocket Calculator’, on the radio in 1981. At the time I found it annoying, largely because my young mind couldn’t figure it. Were these references to consumer electronics intended as celebration or parody? The band have offered contradictory responses to that over the years, but have mostly had the wisdom to stay schtum. And it’s very much in the spirit of Pop Art to raise such questions while refusing to answer them. Indeed, if the artists themselves knew the answer, they could probably stop asking and just retire.

Again Stubbs is on this: “Kraftwerk were new reduced to pure function. Total memory wipe, blood replaced with oil… However, there remained a sheen to them, a strangely romantic auratic resonance that amounted to way above the sum of their electronic parts.”

But the most Pop Art and the most prevailing feature of Kraftwerk would be their personal image. A decade earlier the Beatles had been celebrated for casting off those smart suits, a sign they were no longer fitting in with the poptastic world of showbiz but instead embracing self-expression. With Kraftwerk’s anonymised corporate look, it was like the suits had cast off the artists and gone solo.


To the point where they should probably be considered either a piece of conceptual art (where Kraftwerk existed only as a hook on which to hang the idea of Kraftwerk) or a Pop Art phenomenon, an image printed in order to be disseminated as widely as possible. Not for two albums after Autobahn was this new look first sported on the front cover of their own album, and it was the album after that, ‘The Man-Machine’ (1978), where they nailed it. It’s hard to recall the time where long-haired bands provided a shocking image. Now, just as people had got used to them, Kraftwerk’s short back and sides sit well above their shirt collars.

Despite all its baggage (and Stubbs confesses he avoided using it when approaching all his interviewees) Krautrock stuck as a term partly because it took head-on the question of the German stereotype. And who is ‘the German’? What comes to the British mind? A sober-minded engineer who drives his well-made car safely down well-maintained roads, arriving at work precisely on time. Is he going to rock out? Try and get him to throw a TV out a hotel window and he’d probably worry about voiding the extended warranty.

Can and Faust responded to that with indignant glee: “You think we can’t rock? Hold our schnapps!”

Kraftwerk’s reply was “danke fur die idee”.

Their deliberate playing into the German stereotype is more the stance you’d expect from a comedian. And indeed deadpan humour is a much overlooked aspect of Kraftwerk, somehow still overlooked after they titled a track ’Ohm Sweet Ohm’. And as ever deadpan jokes are all the funnier when someone else isn’t getting them.

I don’t think Kraftwerk really knew what to do after ’Autobahn’. A driving song that went nowhere didn’t really lend itself to follow-ups. It was a great change in direction, but at the same time the last of something. True it hadn’t yet gone fully electric, so is sometimes presented as a job incomplete. Yet some of us find that combination of flute and electronics appealing! (See also, early Tangerine Dream.)

Stubbs finds a good comparison in Marcel Duchamp, whose biggest art statement was his decision to give up art. Yet the point he chooses for their “logical creative terminus” is the one the band chose themselves, which is years too late. Ideally the ‘Man Machine’ cover would have been somehow associated with ’Autobahn’, after which they could have gone into splendid quietude. Their subsequent career has been less less Duchamp and more music’s George Lucas, tinkering and re-tinkering with your earlier work as technology hands you more toys. The original moment of insight gone, all you have left is your redoubled adherence to the things it used to inhabit.

And let’s remember what happened to Krautrock in general. Just as in America it was incubated in a counter-culture which was slowly but surely diminishing. Faust’s last album, in their first incarnation, ‘Faust IV’, was in 1973. As was Agitation Free. Harmonia’s last, ’Deluxe’, was ’75. And Manuel Gottsching’s ‘Invention for the Electric Guitar’, considered by some the last Ash Ra Tempel album, was the same year. Brainticket, if we’re counting them, closed with ‘Celestial Ocean’ in ’74.

But then bands don’t always have the wherewithal to break up when they should. Can carried on after ‘Soon Over Babaluma’ (yep, 1974), but returns diminished. Tangerine Dream made over a hundred albums after ’Atem’ (you guessed it, 1974) but really shouldn’t have bothered.

Exceptions admittedly apply. Cluster lasted to 1979 with ’Grosse Wasser.’ But the great exception, the band who most broke free of the Krautrock scene, were not Kraftwerk but Popol Vuh. In perfect time with Kraftwerk going uber-Modernist, they became the last great cry of German Romanticism, with tracks titles such as ’They Danced, they Laughed, As of Old.’ Yet I digress. Let’s get back to the point. Which is - ’Autobahn’ came out in 1974.

That’s often thing about music, the importance of the music gets over-rated. It’s often simply a means to create cultural icons. In different versions of the Fall song ‘Mere Pseud Mag Ed’ the no-hope protagonist would swap between vainly copying Kraftwerk and the Ramones. Two bands which will immediately create an image in most people’s minds, even those who’ve never heard them. And the Kraftwerk look now seems the more established, their anti-image one of the greatest images.

And, weirdly given its specifically German origins, it was widely taken up. Post-punks often affected its stiff and straight-laced look, as part of their ‘anti-rockist’ opposition to punk’s “mean-it-man” theatrics. David Byrne’s ‘twitch rock’ stage persona is impossible to imagine without Kraftwerk. Public Image’s first album rejected ransom letter text to sport a magazine-in-business-class look. For an early NME interview the Mekons wouldn’t permit a publicity photo of themselves, only of a puppet sporting a guitar, as “we don’t want to push ourselves as INDIVIDUAL PERSONALITIES”. And there lies the true lineage of Kraftwerk, not with posers pressing synthesisers to launch their pop career.

Those icons appear to us as commodified signs, record sleeves or posters to purchase. Visually Kraftwerk have pushed in that direction, re-releasing their albums with literal signs for covers. (‘Autobahn’, inevitably, being a road sign.) Yet they’re not always reducible to those signs. Bands were often about an aesthetic which, once hit on, they’d devote their lives to with near-monastic devotion. Just to make music in that spirit wasn’t enough, everything - down to your daily life - should be in thrall to it. Had Kraftwerk stopped sooner would they still be as ubiquitous and influential? The question’s foolish and misguided. They’d be more so. No-one actually makes biros or hoovers any more, but they don’t have to - they became something bigger.

Saturday, 10 April 2021

‘FUTURE DAYS: KRAUTROCK AND THE BUILDING OF MODERN GERMANY’ BY DAVID STUBBS



Keep Thinking Forward

Let's start with the summing up… this book’s a labour of love by a genuine afficionado. It’s approach has its problems, but it’s still very much something you need to read.

So, having nailed up our colours, let’s start on one of those problems - Stubbs sometimes Does Writerly Research. Which of course just gets in the way. In ’68 Can recorded a whole album, with a sound quite different to their debut, which at the time they couldn’t get released. The chapter on them skips the whole of that, yet starts with a three-page potted history of their home town Cologne.

But at other times research has its half-full side, even when it might seem most tangential to the music. As Stubbs rightly says “Krautrock was a cultural and historical phenomenon, rather than a mode of playing”. And few in Britain realise just how big the extra-parliamentary opposition was, contravening our easy stereotype of the sober-minded German. It’s summarised by Geronimo in 'Fire and Flames: A History of the German Autonomist Movement’ (PM Press):

“The revolt brought a new, uncompromising political morality. Its proponents rebelled against a generation that portrayed itself as an unaware victim of history while carrying the responsibility for Auschwitz. The new generation intended to make history as conscious subjects, thereby changing everyday life… a radical opposition to the existing order of West Berlin and West Germany.”

As the name suggests, the extra-parliamentary opposition was in part a reaction to the narrow, stratified notion of politics as ticks in boxes for rivalling bureaucrats. It effectively rejected the whole of western society as moribund. So its influence was both big and broad. Even Can, a band primarily composed of thirty-something ex-music tutors, performed their early gigs before footage of Parisian riots.

It’s true that overtly political lyrics are rare. But the bands were playing to already politicised times. Why call in song for people to come out on the streets when they’re already out on the streets? Instead they concentrated on making music as culturally radical as the times were politically.

On the front line of the Cold War, Germany had more American troops stationed than anywhere outside America itself, save Japan. Which helped disseminate rock music, while paradoxically heightening its association with dominant American culture. AFN was a radio station designed for US servicemen, eagerly listened to by German youth - yet a continual reminder of that enticing music’s origins. Stubbs puts it pithily: “What had once been the soundtrack of young rebellion now itself needed to be rebelled against”.

For years I’ve been saying a line from Wenders’ film ‘King of the Road’ (1976) states a foundational premise of Krautrock: “The Yanks have colonised our subconscious”. (Of course in a film stuffed with a rocking American soundtrack, even named after one number.) Now Stubbs has put it in print I feel a familiar mixture of vindication and envy.

Similar things happened in Britain, of course. But here the solution was to look back to our own history. If Can’s ‘Monster Movie’ was arguably the first Krautrock and Fairport Convention’s ’Unhalfbringing’ the first electric folk album, then the respective dates (August and July 1969) almost completely coincide. Yet the past was not an option for post-war German youth. Stubbs quotes Can’s Irmin Schmidt:

“The headmasters, judges were ex-Nazis, who quite astonishingly had become ‘denazified’ overnight. You weren’t allowed to question your father about what he had done in the war, nor your grandfather. Naturally we wanted to be free from this waste, this violent legacy.”

So the only direction left was ahead. The book’s name, after a Can album, is well chosen. But there’s another German term, Stunde Null (ironically, not one Stubbs uses). Literally Hour Zero, it means something more like Year Zero. As the official end of the war in Europe had been midnight, it carried both the specific meaning of “no more Nazi shit” and the general sense of a radical break with the past. If the sound of the bands varied massively, to the point where they never saw themselves as part of a scene, they were united by this desire to make music that was entirely new. The blank staves that made up the cover of ’Faust IV’ epitomise this.


And, as we live in a time when rock music is little more than a heritage industry with bands formed like re-enactment societies, it’s precisely this forward thinking which makes Krautrock feel so invigorating.

Kraftwerk, Can, Faust and many others had their own home studios, which in Faust’s case was literally their home. They banned TVs, even radios and record players, the better to instil in themselves that self-reliant mentality. Kraftwerk’s Ralf Hutter recalled “We were in our studio, with the doors closed and there was silence. Now what is our music, what is our language, what is our sound? We realised we had to start from zero…, We didn’t have to reject anything. It was an empty space. And that same feeling was everywhere.”

This might help explain how bands worked in such isolation from one another, quite unlike the contemporary electric folk scene in Britain. Conny Viet, Conrad Schnitzler and Michael Rother moved between bands, but they were very much exception not rule. In the booklet accompanying Faust’s ’Wumme Years’, CD, Jean-Herve Peron recalled “we knew there were other groups riding the same waves. But we didn’t bother once to try and contact them. It was stupid, it was arrogant, we just ignored the rest of the world.”

Modernism Was the Tradition

Yet influences come in different forms. Hutter insisted “music didn’t exist and we had to make it up.” Jon Savage wrote in the Guardian “their history had been erased. They had nothing. But that meant freedom.” Yet too much freedom, an absolutely blank slate, is less liberating than daunting. Like floating in space, you need something to push against to move.


So Hutter also said “our roots were in the culture that was stopped by Hitler, the school of Bauhaus, of German expressionism”. First this leapfrogs you past your parents and their dodgy associations. You go back to where things had left off, before the Nazi clampdown crushed anything creative. And Germany had a rich Modernist history, its value surely proven by the efforts the Nazis went to in suppressing it.

So, ironically, looking back to Modernism helped them to look forward. The future had already been started, it just needed picking up again. As the Russian Constructivist Lyubov Popova had said: “We break with the past because we don’t believe in it any more, because its premises are not acceptable to us, and we will create new ones.”

You would struggle to find much of an expressionist influence on Kraftwerk, despite what Hutter says, but Bauhaus there certainly is. Down to calling themselves ‘music workers’, after ‘cultural workers’. (Though the imprint of Dada on Faust, which might seem the most obvious link of the lot, is played down. Peron, the member who gets interviewed, claims he was unaware of it at the time, though other more “educated” band members may have been.)

And there was another influence, less felt in Britain. The ‘New Music’, which sought to supplant the outmoded classical world, was heavily supported by Westdeutscher Rundfunk (the German BBC) and often released by the German label Deutsche Grammophon. And one of its key figures was German, Karlheinz Stockhausen. Two members of Can had studied under him.

So, much like the American music, this now had to be rejected wholesale. Neu! titled a track ’E-Musik’, a contraction of ‘Ernste Musik’ (‘serious music’, but meaning something more like ‘proper music’ a a definite snub. ) Their chosen band name was partly a parody of advertising, but could equally be taken as a riposte to all this - an insistence we’re the real new music.

At this time when much rock music was trying to bust out of the simple beat, de-emphasising rhythm in praise of musical dexterity, Krautrock intensified it. Can in particular were crossing the other way, taking to repetitive beats with the zeal of the converted. Holger Czukay recalls “Stockhausen denied repetition. He thought it was a weak point… For me, by repeating something, you create something new in it.” And this was a common feature. If not universal it’s true of the big four bands (Can, Kraftwerk, Faust and Neu!), who make up four out of the first five sections here.

And, similarly but more generally, despite having such a clear mission statement Krautrock retained rock’s faith in the instinctual and spontaneous. This was quite at odds with the screeds of theory, manifesting in the form of copious sleeve notes, which the New Music generated. An early member of Faust was kicked out for a list of ‘bourgeois’ crimes, including being neat and tidy, but starting with “he discussed things”.

And they took this even further than standard rock music, which was (for the most part) composed and choreographed while trying not to sound like it. Songs were almost never written then taken to the studio to be recorded, like transcribing notes into neat handwriting. Instead bands would show up at the studio and then see what happened. (When they weren’t living there already.) “We did not care about compositional rules that imprint a predictable order on the music” commented Wolfgang Seidel of Eruption. (Kraftwerk are the exception to the rule here. But then they often were.)

These two influences (Modernism and New Music) might not seem so unusual now. But that’s in itself part of Krautrock’s wide-ranging influence. Back then they simply weren’t considered part of popular music’s source code, but beamed in from outside. And so they enabled Krautrock to fulfil its Stunde Null promise. Or at least get closer to it than might seem possible.

Space Travel Broadens The Mind

But then generalise about Krautrock at your peril. For a whole bunch of groups broke that cardinal rule of back to the beat. The Berlin School, as Stubbs tags them (Tangerine Dream and Kluster/Cluster, among others) saw rhythm as yet another encumbrance which had to be cast off. They wanted a freer, less constrained sound than beats to the bar allowed.

Much of this music’s appeal is its sense of boundlessness, temporal or spatial. ’Electronic Meditation’, the title of the first Tangerine Dream album is a good tag for it. Stubbs comments: “This is not so much music as the artful, purposeful interplay of sounds, liberated from scale, metre, melody, mobile sculptures floating in a zone somewhere between free rock and music concrete.”

At this stage synthesisers were unknown, unaffordable or both. Instead conventional instruments were treated, or more often mistreated, and combined with other sound sources. Particularly with Kluster, this had more in common with today’s free impro scene than punk, dance, psychedelia or any of the usual subjects. If it was to later become associated with ambient music, this was not particularly serene scene. A track on ’Electronic Meditation’ was titled ‘Journey Through a Burning Brain’. Stubbs describes it as “vast and indifferent to human concerns”.

How did any of this come from Berlin, Germany’s largest city, now often thought of as a party destination? “It’s not hard” says Stubbs, but when talking about the later and far more aggressively nihilistic Einsturzende Neubaten. Of this scene he concludes “it did not seem to have the imprint of the city running through it.”

But even as he pronounces it a mystery, he hands you the set of keys you need to unlock it. Surrounded by greyness of East Germany, Berlin is often seen as something between a ghetto and an oasis. (Political and artistic radicals were drawn there to get out of the draft.) Yet, squeezed in space, it expanded in time. This Berlin was liminal. “It is harsh, brusque in its modernity and its juxtapositions… perpetually half-built, crumbling on the brink of bankruptcy…. Redolent of a hundred years of history.” (He even mentions the Wenders film ‘Wings of Desire’, which most depicts it in that light.) A very different terrain to the stretching autobahn which Kraftwerk rode.

Where Opposites Collide

So were these two separate scenes we clueless auslanders try to stitch together, just because they happened in the same country? Like some know-nothing looking at the Stooges and the Grateful Dead and helpfully pointing out they’re both American. The Berlin bands were sometimes described as kosmische (comsic) music, a term popularised by a 1972 compilation and a 1975 manifesto (‘Discover the Galaxy Sound of Cosmic Music’) designed to promote the Ohr label.

And it’s true that when things later degenerated (as they inevitably did) Krautrock fell back into regular rock music, as if ultimately unable to break out of America’s orbit, while Kosmische lost its tang and turned into tasteless New Age slush.

It’s also true that, in the long period where Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream were the only well-known West German bands, no-one thought to associate them much. To this day Tangerine Dream’s Wikipedia page calls them “a German electronic music band”, without mention of the K word.

But that can be countered with one name - Neu!


Ask anyone about Krautrock and they’ll come back with a name - Kraftwerk. But ask a Krautrock fan and they’ll give you the holy trinity - Can, Faust and Neu! For Neu! are no marginal case, but one of the most important outfits the scene produced.

And as Stubbs says, there’s “a duality about Neu!” As captured in the contrasting personalities of the two members, Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother, fire and water. Rother has said “I feel comfortable near water - it has an effect I can’t explain. It has to do with the passage of time, it also moves along like music itself”. There’s tracks called ‘Weissensee’ (White Sea) and ’Seeland’ (Sea Land), there’s water sounds on ’Leb Wohl’.

In another interview he recalled childhood years spent in Asia: “I do remember being completely fascinated by the strange sounds of Pakistani music as a child… this music that seemed to go on and on, with no structure that I could make out, - just an endless stream of melody and rhythm, like a river.” (Nor was he the only Krautrocker to be influenced by the rhythms of what we’d now call world music.)

While Dinger’s great contribution was the motorik beat, now so associated with Krautrock that Stubbs needs to explain a track doesn’t need to use it to count. (Ever the contrarian, Dinger then abandoned drums before the band had even split.) It’s hard to explain the effect of this beat without hearing it.

Writing in the Quietus, Stubbs said: it “just breathes out - a single line, a constant process. Not circular, but driving from A to wherever.” And Dinger’s favoured term for it was “long straight”. Unaccented, without stress on any one strike, it becomes all about forward motion - each iteration there just to take us to the next one.

And if all that makes it sound like Neu! were a collision of opposites whose “opposing constituents” could only temporarily be reconciled, their third album was effectively a contractual obligation which they only coped with by allocating themselves a side each. After the band split, Rother set up a studio in rural seclusion (from where I believe he works to this day) while Dinger remained in industrial Dusseldorf. Dinger always claimed Neu! had to come not just from West Germany but specifically from Dusseldorf, as Stubbs puts it “emerging from the unique friction between that town’s fine art scene and plethora of advertising agencies.”

But the music simply doesn’t sound like that! As Stubbs points out “Rother’s sense of limpid, ambient beauty lies perfectly atop Dinger’s undercurrents of emotional turbulence and sublimated rage.” There’s never the friction between the driving numbers and the pastoral pieces there theoretically should. And the heart of it all is the motorik beat, which doesn’t just epitomise Krautrock but runs straight through any barriers you might want to build between it and the Kosmsiche.

In rock music, power is venerated. Power chords are a positive thing by definition. The Stooges made an album called ‘Raw Power’. In the celebrated ‘Spinal Tap’ gag, the amp goes all the way up to 11. Yet motorik is driving without any sense of power. ’Hallogallo’ means “wild party”, but the track’s not at all raucous. It’s spirited but disciplined and measured, seeming to advance effortlessly. To use a water metaphor, which should really belong to Rother, it flows.

Motorik translates literally into “motor skill”. It evokes that feeling of getting into the rhythm of something, be it dancing or chopping wood. Rather than the task tire that rhythm seems to grant you energy, for as long as you’re in it. Stubbs sums it up well: “Motorik equals the liberation of rigidity”. It's reminiscent of when as a child you wanted not to drive a fast car but be one. (As evoked by so many children’s toys and cartoon characters.)

But most of all… there’s been invented a solar-powered gilder where, the more it flies, the more the sun heats its panels, allowing it to fly still more. Which could have been designed as the absolute best place from which to listen to Neu!

And you can play Neu! over either urban or rural scenes, over Rother’s rivers and forests or Dinger’s Dusseldorf, over stretching highways or cascading streams. Overall, comparisons of Krautrock to Minimalism seem overstated. Reich and Glass (if less Riley) were composers, in the conventional sense of writing scores for musicians to follow. Even their more aleatory pieces worked by following precise instructions, not decisions left to the musicians. Renditions of Minimalist works can stumble if the players assume their role is to bring something of themselves to the piece. Whereas Krautrock was, and had to be, created in the moment.

But this combination of the pulsing withe the serene is a genuine overlap. I’ve written before of how Reich’s music evokes “a city yet to be built… a harmony of gliding electric cars dancing round grid blocks… exuberant and free flowing”. Yet also “the workings of nature… where simple cellular forms can multiply into astonishing variety”.

Neu! contain these contradictory elements, in such a way as to make them seem no longer contradictions. Krautrock is less trying to find a line between the Stooges and the Grateful Dead, and more like the then-contemporary American punk scene, which could incorporate both Television and the Ramones.

Planetary Romanticism 

Yet however wide-ranging all of this is, more a set of enablers than a proscriptive description of a genre, some things do still lie outside of it. And though it goes against tradition to say, though they don’t just appear in but kick off this book, Amon Duul 2 were at most a transitional band.

Stubbs gives you all the evidence you need for this, even if he doesn’t join the pieces together. As any fule no, you can’t judge a book by its cover but you can with an album. And just compare the sleeve of ‘Dance of The Lemmings’ to the first Neu!, Harmonia or Tangerine Dream albums. They’re effectively talking different languages, the uniqueness of the sound reflected in the uniqueness of the images.




Whereas you could have stuck ‘Dance of The Lemmings’ in any British record rack of the day and it would have slid neatly in between those psychedelic rock sleeves. The others are a different thing entirely. Even when Krautrock went in for SF imagery it tended to be in a vectorised, Pop Art form - as with the first Cosmic Jokers album. The cover of the book itself, with its neat angle and bitmapped fonts, aligns with this.


Or check out their free-flowing surrealistic song titles - ‘Flesh Coloured Anti Aircraft Alarm’, ‘Stumbling Over Melted Moonlight’, ‘Dehypnotised Toothpaste’. Krautrock titles were short and punchy or affected a deliberately prosaic air, like Faust’s ’Why Don’t They Eat Carrots?’. Or, perhaps most at the opposite extreme, Neu!’s advertising-copy monickers like ’Special Offer’ and ’Top Quality’.

While bands often took to living communally, Amon Duul 2 came out of a commune. True, a commune they left in order to become a band, to escape the obligation to hand every spliff-holding sofa-surfer a maraca, but that was still the world they came from.

And their sound remained linked to the psychedelic underground. They not only shared a member with Hawkwind (Dave Alexander) but a trajectory, starting out with long spacey jams which over the years took on more of a song structure, before the final degeneration into regular rockism. (All of which is intended entirely as description of their sound, not criticism. I wouldn’t compare a band to the awesome Hawkwind lightly!)

And in those heady days, the dividing line wasn’t nation but generation. Flights then becoming affordable to regular folk, the underground saw itself as something inherently internationalist. London’s radical paper of the day was ‘International Times’. A common chant on demos was “Paris, London, Rome, Berlin”. Guitarist John Weinzierl has said: “We felt international. You have to learn English in German schools, and that’s a good thing.” Similar bands had international line-ups, such as Gong or Brainticket.


And yet with the strong dynamics in their music, the other tradition they’ve inherited would be German Romanticism. The original cover to ’Phallus Dei’ (1969) was a tree, not something Faust or Kraftwerk would have contemplated. Their love of grandiose Science Fiction imagery (in tracks such as ‘Surrounded by the Stars’), like much science fiction, is the Romantic awe of nature scaled up - overpowering mountains and waterfalls made planet size. Ironically this is something German. And yet from quite a different lineage to the Bauhaus and Dada of Krautrock.

Anyway, to finish by summing up… this book’s a labour of love by a genuine afficionado. It’s approach brings problems at times, but it’s still very much something you need to read.

Saturday, 3 April 2021

“I DRUMBEAT TWENTY-ONE HOURS A DAY”: CAN’S ‘MONSTER MOVIE’ (TOP 50 ALBUMS)


It’s The Band That Makes the Band

Befitting so legendary a band, every member of Can has their own origin story. But drummer Jaki Liebezeit got the best. An acclaimed free jazz musician, after one gig he was being congratulated for his paradiddling when a grizzled freak marched up and spat at him “why do you play that shit? You must play monotonously!”


At least that’s the way Julian Cope told it in ’Krautrocksampler’, the first book on the scene I (and probably most people) read. Liebezeit has confirmed something like that happened. But he was already a devotee of what we’d now call ’world music’ (with the band named after the Turkish for ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’), so it perhaps wasn’t quite the “moment of life-changing clarity” Cope claimed. 


Anyway, it wasn’t just that he took the advice, it’s that he converted the rest of us. Can became like the Zen master in old films, who can accomplish things us humdrum folk can’t but chooses to fill his days with simple tasks. Bassist Holger Czukay and keyboardist Irmin Schmidt had been pupils of Stockhausen at the Darmstadt, and taught the ‘New Music’. But they turned their back on it all to play some of the most pared-down, groove-based metronomic trance-outs ever accomplished. You don’t need lots of notes, you just need to know the right ones. Guitarist Michael Karoli recalled “We weren’t into impressing people, just caressing them.”


Which made the band unit the thing. Jamming was scarcely uncommon in this era, and most of it now sounds no less self-indulgent than the drum solos. Whereas Can always jammed with focus, as a collective effort. Irmin Schmidt said “Although we created a sense of freedom, there was intense concentration and discipline.” The band even disliked the term, with its noodling connotations, preferring ‘spontaneous compositions’. 


Robert Fripp famously said: “You hear what everyone else is doing; you do whatever is necessary, which is usually as little as possible. It has nothing to do with self-expression, it has to do with a group mind.“ Which may fit Can more than King Crimson themselves. Bassist Holger Czukay later commented “a group is like a living organism. A band should be like a gang”.



Which is why I prefer what’s now the less-known cover to ’Tago Mago’, the original UK release. Not because it (uniquely) features the group, but because it shows them not just playing live but from behind - facelessly collectivised. “No Fuhrers” was one of Liebezeit’s  dictums.


And their recording methods perfectly matched this intent. Their first release came with the rather cryptic by-line “made in a castle with better equipment”. Which referred to the Schloss Norvenich, near their home base of Cologne. Owned (yes really!) by a friend with plans to transform it into an arts centre, they were able to rehearse there as they chose. Liebezeit recalled: “every day, midday to midnight, we improvised and recorded in our studio”. It was significant enough to them that the name they gave it, Inner Space, originally doubled as the name of the band. (Not to mention becoming another lyrical madness mantras, on the early track ’19th Century Man'.)


And he means recorded. When Czukay swapped his savings for a basic two-track recorder, their rehearsal space essentially doubled as their home studio. They’d jam along a groove, often for hours at a time. He’d record it all, then judiciously edit it down. And knowing just what to take out was always central to Can.


…and all this was essential to their sound. In those days studio time was sparse, precious and above all costly. So standard behaviour became for bands to learn their set, drill themselves into such proficiency that little of the booked time would be wasted. But this turned music-making into a work task, to be accomplished as quickly and efficiently as possible. Rhythms became regularised factory rhythms, for factory workers to step out to in their few hours off. By escaping that process, Can’s music retained its organic feel, it’s spontaneity. And with Liebezeit’s drumming, it had a heart where its clock should be.


Let’s try to prove that… The standard explanation for their decline is the departure of second vocalist Damo Suzuki. Yet ‘Soon Over Babaluma’ was made after he’d gone. Which Schmidt rightly called “the last of the good Can records”.


While in ‘Future Days; Krautrock and the Building of Modern Germany’ (Faber & Faber) David Stubbs, more convincingly pins the ultimate dissolution of the band on… better equipment! They took to proper recording methods, with each player laying down their track separately. 


Czukay himself conceded: “In the beginning we were a real group… Then when we became successful we were able to afford a multi-track machine. From this moment on, you could say it was the beginning of the end for Can. It was: ‘I want to hear guitar’, or ‘I want to hear the bass’. Everyone was criticising each other about what he’s doing wrong and so on.” In short, when Can stoped recording like Can they stopped sounding like Can. The next album was even called ’Landed’, a sign there’d be no more astral flights.


In the early days the Velvet Underground were a strong influence. And in their spirit early Can was hot, rough, abrasive and tense. But as they went on, like a stone bounding downstream, they became smooth, serene, cool and languid. Which explains something of their enduring appeal. Everyone from out-and-out punkers to art rockers to ambient artists have been caught in Can’s influence, but by fixing their sights on different periods. Just like the Velvets, later bands have based their whole careers on what to Can was one passing phase.


But more important is that trajectory makes for compelling listening. You not only have to hear their initial six-album run, from ’Delay’ (recorded 1968) to ‘Soon Over Babaluma’, (1974) you need to hear it as one piece of meta-music. In fact, if you haven’t heard it I don’t think you can say you’ve heard music. An early track, ’Uphill’, confirms they were ascending a curve, then later diving into free fall.


All of which is true, except that here you have to pick one…



The Monster of the Movie…


’Delay’ had been intended as the first album, but none at the time were bold enough to release it. Which in the long-term proven a boon. The Velvets influence was then still worn on their sleeve, while later releases developed more of their unique sound.


The highpoint definitely comes in the run of ‘Monster Movie’, (1969), ‘Tago Mago’ (1971) and ‘Ege Bamyasi’ (1972) - between hot and cool, when their porridge was just right. From them, most go for ‘Tago Mago’. But, while they’re clearly both such stellar albums, I have three… count’ em three reasons for picking ’Monster Movie’.


It comes down to the singer. And it’s true the two vocalists varied greatly in style, so each had their distinct role. Suzuki was like a shaman conducting a ritual. Semi-fluent in several languages he’d swap between tongues, or go into a kind of scatting, babbling ur-language. As religious ecstatics talk in tongues, he’d sing in them. And arguably his less upfront singing suited the band philosophy of no musical hierarchies. 


But first singer Malcolm Mooney was a Dada poet, on a one-man mission to eradicate all meaning. He’d pick up on banal phrases he saw or overheard, or just concoct nonsense expressions such as “the direction of coat hangers is upside down”, like Schwitters collaging letters from newspapers and magazines. He’d then intone them until they had even less meaning than they started out with. Mooney and Suzuki were such opposites they became complementary, like contrasting colours.


Suzuki sings as though he’s possessed of meaning which currently lies just outside your reach; Mooney as though nothing he says means anything, and the same goes for everything else you ever heard. Which I love just that little bit more.


Alternately, it’s about the song. Can’s finest moment is a three-way tie between ’Mushroom’, ‘Mother Sky’ and - as you may have guessed - a track from ’Monster Movie’. We’ll get to it…


But most important is approach. Though recorded in the same castle ’Tago Mago’ used it’s four sides to expand on the tape collage elements, and was effectively a studio album even if there never really was a studio. While ’Monster Movie’ has more of the as-live sound. Which makes it the most Can of the Can albums, the point they were doing their thing the most they ever did it.


For which they found a handy phrase. After the non-appearance of ’Delay’ the band has a second chance to record a first album, and hence make a mission statement. As Julian Cope has said ‘Outside My Door’, with it’s self-referential lyrics and the repeated refrain “any colour is bad”, is their credo condensed into four words. A newbie’s introduction to Can is right there, provided they’re willing to dive in at the deep end.


And from there those deep waters just get deeper. ‘You Doo Right’ is clearly the monster of ’Monster Movie’, arriving fittingly at the midway mark, and taking up the whole of the album’s second side. Yet there’s no musical indication that it will be a long piece, no symphonic-style intro like there would be with prog. It doesn’t even really start, it’s more like it was there all along and a door opened onto it. 


Neither does it have any kind of finale. It just kind of is, finding ceaseless variations within its basic structure. Which become more captivating than any dynamics. Other tracks on the album offer some semblance of song structure, if to varying degrees. Not here. Rather than develop or run through sections it rides waves, building up and subsiding. If anything it de-develops, becomes sonically more reductive as it goes on, at points dropping down to voice and drums.


Given their methods it’s likely it only took that size in the unfolding. Accounts vary as to how long the monster originally was, before Czukay’s pruning scalpel. Cope claims “about an hour and a half”, Wikipedia says six, and Mooney has claimed it was twelve hours straight. He recalls breaking for lunch, leaving the others to carry on, then getting back and joining straight in again.


But there is something just right about it’s ultimate side-long length. When the band got to pick the tracks for the compilation ’Cannibalism’ they found themselves having to edit down longer tracks to fit on everything they wanted. But ’You Doo Right’ was left untouched.



”When they ask what’s wrong…”


Yet if it’s Can at their most Can-like there’s also something unique about it. Contrary to their era lyrics weren’t ‘meaningful’, to be consulted on sleeves and diligently interpreted. But this time…


Mooney had come to Germany to dodge the draft, his girlfriend remaining in America. He didn’t exactly settle, a poor speaker of the language, and a black man who found the place riddled with racism. (Which, if it was anything like contemporary Britain, it was.) Under these pressures his behaviour more and more erratic. On stage this often worked for a band who didn’t do regular anyway. Off-stage was another story. So the words to ‘You Doo Right’, which might initially sound like bland love song professions deliberately decontextualised, actually made for a rare moment of confessional songwriting…


”When they ask "what's wrong?" I say I’m OK

”I'm in love with my girl, she's away

”I drum beat twenty-one hours a day”


And so it was to prove both the band’s high water mark (they’d come close but never really top it) and the undoing of Mooney’s tenure. On medical advice, not long after this he’d left both the band and the country, not returning to music till ’89.


So ’You Doo Right’ is an accomplishment, visionary and masterful players knowing just what sounds they must make and doing it. It exults in the repetition, the sheer joy of surrendering to the beat. Describing Krautrock music in general, Stubbs notes “it’s pure, almost infantile pleasure, but it also hints at an underlying Sisyphean futility. There is a stasis, a fixation about it - we are travelling but ‘going’ nowhere at once. Endless, beginning, endless, beginning.” ’You Doo Right’ exemplifies this par excellence.


But it’s simultaneously a record of a breakdown happening in real time. It dramatises trauma, that thought that snags in your brain and sticks there, that thing you can’t move on from. Something coming together and something fracturing, as though they’re the same thing. That’s where it gets its edge.


And with the equally repeated line “once I was blind, now I can see” it marks a kind of dark enlightenment. And if we go back to those two other contenders for the band’s finest moment we find much the same. ’Mushroom’ was a kind of yang to Jefferson Airplane’s ‘White Rabbit’ - “When I saw a mushroom head/ I was born and I was dead”. While Wikipedia describes ’Mother Sky’ as "Damo Suzuki mulls the relative merits of madness and ‘Mother Sky’.”


In the famous quote about Picasso, he was at the roots of art. Can, similarly, were at the roots of music. They condensed it down to its very essence, and played it with absolute focus and complete lack of ego.


See it this way. If Can were like Zen masters in old films, what role does that character get in those films? Of course the hero, adrift in the world, goes back to the master for some re-righting. And with their twelve-hour jamming stints inside the castle, five people moving as one  with no thought of anything outside, ’Monster Movie’ is your wisdom-giving guru.

Saturday, 27 March 2021

THE GOLDEN AGE OF THE MIGHTY FALL: 9. “THE BEST FIRMS ADVERTISE THE LEAST”

”Compound in it’s directness...”
- Sleevenotes, ’Perverted by Language'


”Had forgot what others still tried to grasp...”

Okay, the Fall's last long player might have been a retreat and relative disappointment. But ’Hex’s ‘lava’ tracks such as 'Winter' suggested a different Fall, a Fall which would come to dominance with 1983’s 'Perverted by Language'. The lyrics and even the title of ‘Hexen Definitive’ refer back to ‘Hex’, leapfrogging the album which lay between.

There are self-styled ‘true’ Fall fans who take this as the beginning of the end, partly because it’s the first to feature Brix. (More of her later.) But in many ways it stands alone. It’s the post ’Hex’ direction which Smith previously claimed wasn’t there. It’s a leaner, more laconic Fall, pared down and stretched out, riffs extended past sanity, bass lines like train tracks heading off to the vanishing point. It’s more measured, more mantra-like, the nearest the band ever came to sounding serene and transcendental.

It’s less in thrall to the Velvets than in disciplehood to Can. Smith has said “I've liked Can since I was about 13 or 14.... I like the way it's open-ended.” Precisely hitting on the element picked up here.

It’s like an alternate history where the band had taken up a different template to 'Spectre vs Rector,' and instead of digging for demons had chosen to soar on wings. (Flabby or otherwise.) It’s the least garage-band, the – though Smith would truly spit at this word – artiest Fall album. At times the band even lose their signature lumberingness and become almost majestic.

‘Hex’ had hitched together two fast tracks - ‘Fortress’ and ‘English Deer Park’. This album closes by coupling a slow piece, ‘Hexen Definitive’ with an even slower one, ‘Strife Knot’. Which means that rather than ending the album fades into the ether, summing up much of its spirit. (No pun intended. Oh okay, pun intended.) ’Tempo House’ is another “definitive rant”, which even draws complainers into its complaint. But while ’C+C’ was most definitely a rant, this is more like an incantation, a spell cast over the bothersome.

Where ’Hex Enduction Hour’ had flaunted incoherence a sleevenote here insisted it was “compound in its directness”. Significantly it broke with the standard scrawl-at-a-wall cover ‘design’ of the previous four albums, for something that looked (in its own way) even artistic. For my slender dollar, it’s the finest of Fall albums with ’Garden’ standing as their finest moment. (If closely followed by ’Winter'.)


Except of course no Fall album was ever reducible like that. ’Eat Y’self Fitter’ is the only track which could have been on ’Room To Live’, another rough-edged parody song, taking its title from a Kellogg’s ad. While the incendiary ‘Smile’ burns all the more brightly when surrounded by such serenity, like a volcano suddenly blasting off in the Pacific.

”I got the idea from a book”

Bassist Steve Hanley has called ’Garden’ and ’Smile’ “the great unremitting guitar songs” of the album. True, but they’re bookends. The guitar on ‘Smile’ is intense and incessant, each iteration raising the ante. All tension, no release, it perfectly conveys when rage boils inside you but remains lidded, the rictus grin you fix while some wanker spews his bullshit at you. (Smith wasn’t exactly known for keeping his feelings to himself, but that’s the feeling the song conveys.)

Despite the frequent references to “anarchy” it seems less aimed at anarcho-punks and more those who expressed a fashionable fin-de-siecle feeling through their choice of eyeliner, to who “decadence” and “anarchy” were equivalent terms. “Would ask for lager in the town of Auschwitz” Smith spits in the Peel Session version. He once said it was “about the hypocritical type that says he wants anarchy but are in fact very bourgeois”. (Though ’English Deer Park’ suggested he had no more time for anarcho-punks. I’m not suggesting he liked anyone.)

Whereas on ‘Garden’, though the guitar’s equally dominant, it’s expansive, resounding, each iteration building on what went before rather than reiterating it. It’s as ominous and foreboding as ever but at the same time stately and majestic. Dary Easlea found it “fascinating in its excessive repetition”.

As already said, Fall tracks are not, in the main, works of poetry or literature which just happen to be set to music. Making sense of this band is simply not the way to go. ’Garden’, however, is something of an exception. It’s stuffed with allusions which do form a coherent picture. (Well, sort of.)

The title clearly refers to Eden though, as we’ll come onto and despite the band’s name, it’s more primordial than pre-lapsarian. And this helps us to realise the most fitting thing of all - this timeless track is about timelessness. Remember time had been a fixation of Smith’s since the early days, and ’Hex’ had brought to the mix the mythologised roots of European culture. And these kind of combine here.

The first of the two Gods described is clearly Odin. The Norse God was symbolically associated with the number three, for example with the Horn Triskelon. In the legends he hung himself from the one tree at the world’s centre in order to gain wisdom, depictions of which often show him hanging from one leg. (The same image as the Hanged Man card in the Tarot deck, leading some to infer it derived from the Odin myth.) Which could be said to make him three-limbed, here rendered as “a three-legged, black-grey hog”. (Well he was a shapeshifter.)


“The second God” is represented by way of contrast with images of linear motion - “fountains that flowed”, “blue shiny lit roads”, “the brown baize lift shaft”. If we didn’t guess from “the bells stop on Sunday when he rose”, then the repeated line “Jew on a motorbike” could be said to give the game away. (Slightly presaged by the hooded Friar on a tractor, who shows up in ’The NWRA.’)

As Wikipedia will tell you of Odin “the entire scene, the sacrifice of a god to himself, the execution method by hanging the victim on a tree, and the wound inflicted on the victim by a spear, is often compared to the crucifixion of Christ.” Added to which, both appear dead for a length of time, only to rise again. And if Odin is associated with threes, Jesus is part of the Trinity. All fair enough, but it does stray towards that “all stories are one” bollocks peddled by New Age gurus, suggesting that comparisons that are easy to find are oftenjust as insignificant.

But Smith seems more focused on the differences. Particularly when recited over that measured beat the image of the figure slowly turning, established early in the song, cements itself on the mind’s eye. So when the flowing fountains show up they make for something of a contrast. Why else would Jesus be associated with fountains, lit roads, motorbikes and phones? They’re not exactly Biblical references. It’s because one is the God of circular, the other of linear time.

More widely, the imagery constantly swaps between ancient/arcane and modern/trivial. Even the title could refer either to Eden or a manicured front lawn. In a typical Smithism, Odin’s ancient nature is conveyed through reference to “films on TV, five years back at least”. Because if Jesus can have a second coming, why not Odin as well? (“Wild Bill Hick shaves and charts at last. The second god's sad - he's coming up.”) Two ancient Gods, seemingly consigned to myth, rise from the depths like Godzilla, in a world we had foolishly imagined now belonged to us. Whereupon they seem most likely to ask “who’s been sleeping in my bed?”

It’s perhaps significant that the song segues into ’Hotel Bloedel’, which has the same juxtapositions of ancient and modern as a means to convey the recurrence of the seemingly dead. “Hidden fragments, surface now/ Repetitious history/ One more time for the record”, in it’s layering (with even the vocal lines overlaid on one another), seems connected to the “household pet” twirling to reveal Odin, or the reference to “a Kingdom of Evil book/ Under a German history book”. As Faulkner liked to say: “The past isn’t over. It’s not even past.”

If the theme of ‘Garden’, reduced to a word, is “return”, that of ‘Hotel Bloedel’ is “repeat”. History isn’t linear, a graph by which we can track our progress. Our history is more like the mind of a PTSD sufferer, a stuck record endlessly reliving some primary trauma. Brix’s raw screech repeats the chorus like she’s the Fates, part describing part proscribing, while Smith narrates the incidents which are actually recurrences.

And what’s a hotel but a reiteration of the same thing, stacked repeats of the same room, none of them being where we belong? Smith recites years as if they’re numbers on the doors of the rooms (“Two-oh-one-three”).

”The Place I Made the Purchase No Longer Exists”


“Warning!”, Smith had written on the Press Release for ’Hex’, “there are no blonde birds on the cover or in this record.” (A comment which is possibly a post-feminist statement, but more likely not.) Ironically, just such a character appeared first on 
’Perverted by Language’ and went on to have a greater role in subsequent events. 

And so some came to see Smith’s new wife Brix – glamorous and above all American - as a kind of Yoko Ono, smoothing out and even glamming up the band. The 1984 singles ’Oh Brother’ and ’C.R.E.E.P.’ were even accused of being...sensitive souls look away now... commercial!

And true to tell the Fall did lose something. But they traded it. Their golden age for their silver. Brix didn’t break the Fall. If anything, it was the opposite. Without her, they’d most likely have been unable to match past triumphs and sunk into a half life. She helped create a whole new band from the ashes of an old one.

They lost a sense of precarity, the feeling they were exploring strange and foreign territory. But they gained in horsepower. They’d been like a wild holy man – deranged and unpredictable, incoherent but compelling, turning in several different directions at once. They became disciplined to the point of being well-oiled, locking into a beat like atank regiment crossing open country. The old Fall were like semi-distinct alchemical symbols scrawled on a wall. The new Fall were like a thick coat of emulsion. The old Fall were wayward, the new Fall straight-ahead.

Sometimes it feels like Eighties Britain was full of great music, but due to a booking error it all got front-loaded and was gone before we reached the mid-point. If the Fall had appeared as a new band (which essentially they were) in the desert of those times, they’d have been hailed as saviours.

But Brix's input should be put together with Smith's obstinate and persistent refusal to serve up the oldies live. Gig-goers were lucky to hear anything more than two years old. So the Fall were always starting from Ground Zero, alwayssounding fresh and current. 'Repetition', the mission statement number they'd once played pointedly to piss off audiences, they'd soon started to get requests for. So naturally they'd refuse to play it, Smith deriding anyone who asked for it - “You do not pay us enough to dictate our actions”.

Perhaps Smith was the Dylan of British punk – drawing on influences outside of music, forever changing his style and backing band, refusing to ever look back, pursuing a persona in interviews as much as in song, specialising in vituperative "truth attacks" and never more so then when asked to explain himself. (He repeatedly insisted he had no time for Dylan, surely suggesting there must be something to the comparison.)

But that doesn’t cover the biggest overlap. Nick Southgate has commented “Bob Dylan’s lyrics were simultaneously supersaturated with meaning, while also empty vessels for listeners to import their own issues and interpretations.”(‘The Wire’ 262, Apr. 14)

Smith's songs play a still greater game of chicken, straying further from the brink of lucidity, like jigsaw pieces of concepts and images shaken together. He can show a Dada disdain for meaning which is positively explanation-baiting - “the love of Paris infects the Civil Service”, “God damn the pedantic Welsh”. (Phrases which often migrated from song to song.) 

Yet other lyrics form up into successions of gnomic yet evocative utterances, which seem to suggest at something without ever coming out and saying it – “the blue shiny lit roads”, “everybody hears the hum at 3am”, “the wings rot and curl right under me”. As Marc Burrows (no relation) has pointed out, Fall tracks are “more idea-worms than ear ones.” There's the constant tug of that underlying feeling that somewhere along the line it might add up to something. Better play it one more time.

In short, Smith had the knack for making any nonsense sound like it might make sense somehow. Even when it clearly didn't. Which is the single most important thing to understand about the Fall, head and shoulders above any other.

Not that knowing the trick stops it working on you. In fact it’s just part of the process. If Fall songs are full of magicallycursed objects, perhaps taken together they form one in their own right. We become like addicted gamblers returning to bet on the same rigged deck. As Mark Fisher said “[our] enjoyment involves a frustration – a frustration, precisely, of our attempts to make sense of the songs. Yet… if it is impossible to make sense of the songs, it is also impossible to stop making sense of them – or at least to it is impossible to stop attempting to make sense of them.” He later concluded, quoting ’Wings’, “There’s no way back. The place I made the purchase no longer exists.”

But with Smith it was more than not being able to make sense of the songs, the songs themselves seemed unstable. It was always impossible to work out whether the Fall were a raw-edged garage band, playing what music they could, or some kind of art-rock ensemble affecting primitivism. But it's more than that, even...

Of the classic bands I listened to in that era, only Swans and Throbbing Gristle rivalled the Fall for polarising reaction. It wasn’t even that people couldn’t stand them, they simply refused to believe that I could! It had to be either an elaborate pretence on my part or a symptom of mental illness. Which leads into Paul Morley’s well-know wobble, after one of the many times the band collapsed into acrimony – "what if he wasn't a genius, what if he was an old drunken tramp?" And life might not have to have worked out very differently for him to have become become someone who shouted at parking meters in the street which clutching myriad plastic bags.

It’s not that the Fall had bad tracks. Most bands have bad tracks and they had surprisingly few of them, at least in this era. It's doubting your ability to tell the difference. Even now, I can have my Morley moments and momentarily wonder if I really had just been kidding myself all along. Which seems part of it too. There's another thing Smith said to Middles: "When I started buying records, the ones I liked were the ones I could only half-understand. What I don't like about a lot of records today is that they're too clear. There's really no fascination or mystery left."

Marc Burrows (still no relation) decided to deep-end by listening to nothing but the band for a full month. Sounding surprisingly sane afterwards, he concluded “the Fall, it turns out, are not a band you can merely ‘like’.” Which would be a fitting way to end things. Except there's a better one - Smith's pay-off line at the end of Peel Session track 'Mess of My':

"Fill the rest in yourself."

(Coming Soon! Krautrock ist nicht tot.)

Saturday, 20 March 2021

THE GOLDEN AGE OF THE MIGHTY FALL: 8. ‘THE WINGS ROT AND CURL RIGHT UNDER ME’

”Yeah, it’s like, it’s a bit sort of reedy, John, somehow, it’s weedy, sort of...”
- Mark E Smith


Diluted Slang Truth

After the unexpected success of ’Hex Enduction Hour’, Smith booked studio time for a single then informed the band they were recording an album. Older readers will recall this is precisely the trick he pulled with ‘Slates’. Ever mischievous, he then shook things up further by excluding some band members from certain sessions. And ever contrary, he effectively devised not a follow-up to ‘Hex’ so much as an anti ‘Hex’. ’Room To Live’ came out later in 1982.

As new numbers were written on the road, there was normally a backlog of material ready to record. But this time much of it was jettisoned. The epic ‘Backdrop’, which had been either opening or closing their set, was never to see a studio recording. The result was their only album to have no tracks featured on a Peel session.

Considering how often Smith shook his dice, he proved a strangely unerring ability to throw sixes. Yet this, the first time he’d bet and throw low, proved that all along he’d been gambling rather than meta-gaming. As time went on, particularly in the Nineties and Noughties, he’d gamble more and more recklessly and more than once lose his shirt. The Fall flew without a safety net. Which meant when the Fall fell, they fell.

And so, straight after the longest Fall album so far, came the briefest. (Discounting ‘Slates’, which was conceived as a mini-album.) It was not well received, with no more of that reaching No. 71 in the charts business. It’s seen as the weak link of their golden age. (Unless you count the live ‘Totale’s Turns’.) ‘Detective Instinct’
is in all honesty near-six minutes of tedium. When four of it’s seven tracks appeared on the subsequent live album ’Fall In a Hole’, arguably all sounded better there.

Paul Hanley, in ’Have A Bleedin Guess’, suggests Smith’s motive was less musical than political, to disrupt the shopfloor unity of the band to make it more malleable. He quotes Smith: “I played the same trick on the group as the people who bought the record. I suppose I’m a contrary bastard”. Yeah, could be, Mark.

Whereas Mick Middles runs with a different Smith quote: “I felt we were in danger of turning into some sort of big band, like the sort of epic rock sound that the Bunnymen were moving towards at the time, and that’s never been the idea of The Fall. That’s why ’Room To Live’ was such a necessary album.” ‘Hex’ had worked not just well but too well, there was simply no space to go further in that direction.

True or not, that may pinpoint the problem. After ‘Hex’ it seemed a step back, a retreat to the already-trod. A fact which gets even stranger when you consider it was sandwiched between their two strongest works.

Strangest of all, it somehow managed to combine feeling regressive with providing something of a sonic challenge. The album closer ‘Papal Visit’ leaves you regretting any ill word you ever said over ’And This Day’. It’s quite possibly the most daunting track of the band’s whole golden age, against which ‘Spectre Vs. Rector’ sounds like a crossover hit.

The Pope really did visit Manchester and, befitting the extemporised nature of the recording, this looks to have been an impromptu reaction. It’s more than usually balanced on the knife-edge between genius and madness. I’m torn whether to liken it to Throbbing Gristle or, another final track on an album, PiL’s notorious self-confessed last-minute quota-filling ‘Fodderstompf’. It also seems one of the two golden age tracks never to have been performed live. (It’s companion, perhaps ironically given the title, is ‘Live At the Witch Trials’. Though that was more of an interlude. Believe it or not, even ‘WMC Blob 59’ got four.)

Yet for all of that there are classic Fall track to be found here. Admittedly two of them do use the full band, 'Joker Hysterical Face’ and the furiously abrasive ‘Solicitor In Studio’, so aren’t subject to Smith’s self-sabotaging.

Though that makes the measured menace of ‘Hard Life In the Country’ all the more interesting. Unlike the other stand-out tracks on the album there’s no record of it being played live beforehand, so presumably it was thrown together in the studio – Smith’s one six among the snake eyes. It’s also the one track which you could best argue has something over the live ’Fall In A Hole’ version. (Though, much like ’Who Makes the Nazis’, the world really needs both versions.)

It feels like a couplet from ‘Jawbone and the Air Rifle’ - “The villagers dance round pre-fabs/ And laugh through twisted mouths” – blown up into song length. Perhaps the most audaciously pared-down track since ‘CnC – S’ Mithering’, its lumbering tempo drips with implied threat, a remorseless inevitability suggesting that ultimately the locals are going to get “their due”. There’s the great line about his defensive garden railings being confiscated “for government campaigns”. And it lays on Smith’s classic black humour:

”It's hard to live in the country
”It has a delicate ring
”Nymphet new romantics come over the hill
”It gets a bit depressing”


Smith recalled leaving his house under someone’s stewardship while touring Australia, “but he let all the scum of the village in and they, like, wrecked the place… so the village did close in on me.”

Though we should always be wary of confusing the (often mundane) impetus for songs with their ‘meaning’. It’s probably more the point that, for a front-man of a band who were almost permanently on the road, and from someone who could probably have powered half of Lancashire by attaching it to his gob, Smith seemed remarkably disposed to sociophobia.

The track conveys the paranoia last distilled this neatly in ‘Frightened’ and ‘A Figure Walks’, where the collective will crowd in on and devour the individual. (And notably the title track is also about your home being invaded by an undifferentiated mass.)


”Day By Day, The Moon Gains On Me”

Happily, things soon picked up again with the successive singles ‘The Man Whose Head Expanded’ and the double A-side which gave us ‘Wings’. A track which kicks off with the brilliantly matter-of-fact line “purchased pair of flabby wings”, as if time-travelling wings are for sale in the shops. It’s in some ways an update of ’Various Times’, only with the same character showing up in each episode. And the character seems… wait for it… something of a stand-in for Smith. In fact...

”Recruited some gremlins
”To get me clear of the airline routes…
”They had some fun with those cheapo airline snobs”


...sounds very much like him forming a band and venting over the music industry all over again. And the academic assaulted with “a gust of cheap magazines” always reminds me of Brecht’s dictum: “The masses’ bad taste is rooted more deeply than the intellectual’s good taste.”

But needless to say it all ends in tears. The magic wings turn out to be as much a cursed object as the medallion in ‘Winter’. He has to pay off those gremlins “with stuffing from my wings,” killing himself to live. Before that opening line the track starts with the repeated refrain “Day by day/ The moon gains on me”. And you could parse ‘Wings’ as employing time travel as a means of/metaphor for defying death, zipping about the chronology to present mortality with a moving target - but with it inexorably drawing in on you.

It’s a classic example of the fuzzy logic which powers song lyrics. There’s no actual sense to it, but the mood is so strong it feels like there must be. And so it turns out that the wings can take you anywhere but back again, “the place I made the purchase no longer exists”, “erased” by all that time-rewriting. Inevitably the protagonist ends up sleeping under bridges as “the wings rot and curl right under me”.

The other side was about football.