Concorde 2, Brighton, Mon 24th Feb
It's not an exaggeration to say that Goblin were for Dario Argento what Ennio Morricone was for Sergio Leone. Even if their film soundtracks worked in quite different ways. Leone's films were almost operas without the singing, with the grand sweep of the music doing more talking than the characters. In, for example, 'Once Upon A Time in the West', Harmonica's character is filled in more through his musical theme than anything he tersely utters.
But Argento's lurid and surreal horror films were more interested in atmosphere than character. So the soundtrack isn't something slapped on top, audio cues to let us know how to respond to what's happening on the screen. Instead it just keeps going, permeating the whole film - marinading it in its mood. It would be virtually impossible to imagine those films without the soundtracks, they'd no longer be the same thing. (It may even be true each needed the other. Though I love the film, their soundtrack to Romero's 'Dawn of the Dead' (1978) isn't all that memorable.)
But of course, unlike Morricone, Goblin were a rock band. A band who had already produced an album before they fell into working with Argento, almost by chance. (They were due to contribute to 'Deep Red' (1975), when the existing composer walked out - leaving the job to them.) Which is significant. This was the era where the sound of a recording, rather than just the beat or melody, came to matter. Which pushed popular music and soundtracks together. Popol Vuh, for example, had a similar relationship with director
Wim Wenders Werner Herzog on films such as 'Aguirre
Wrath of God' (1972). And while Black Sabbath never
produced soundtracks, it's notable they were inspired in both their
sound and their name by the eponymous horror film.
And yet almost no band produces so split a reaction in me than Goblin. They're like chalk cut with cheese. They were first inspired by English prog bands Genesis and King Crimson. Who to my mind mark the stranger and more interesting side of prog, even if both could also have their moments of empty ostentation. There also seemed something of a Kosmische influence on them, such as the afore-mentioned Popol Vuh. (For example on the track 'Markos'. Though who can say if German underground music was even known in Italy at the time?) Plus, formally, the different nature of soundtracks could have a liberating effect. While much prog promised a breakaway from the norm, then served up standard rock tracks just with longer solos, soundtracks were a route out of such limitations.
Yet the failings of prog were always reappearing in Goblin just as they seemed transcended, with haunting sections of the most mesmeric power all-too-soon souring into regular Seventies rock-outs. And this was particularly true of their non-soundtrack albums, like they'd grown wings only to fold them away again. Though even the 'Suspira' soundtrack, surely their finest work, manages to span the sublime and the frankly cheesy.
I went to see them through the conviction that such rare opportunities should be seized. (In the original line-up, even!) But also to see if such a split could resolve itself. Which it couldn't, really. It's evident that they truly were a band first, for they provide a tight rhythm section - which could even get convincingly funky when it chose. But there were several trebly guitar outbreaks and other sections I simply waited to be over. There was, before you ask, even a drum solo.
It's notable how the soundtracks have defined them, even as a live band. They're called Goblin for one thing, despite that originally being intended as a one-off nomme-de-plume for 'Deep Red'. They perform before film clips. (Though they also served up several tracks from the non-soundtrack 'Roller'.) And, though they don't save it for the finale, its the theme to 'Suspira' which won the biggest audience cheer.
Designed as soundtracks, the pieces don't necessarily work the same way live. What can seem boundless during a film, where you're used to music appearing as a series of short excerpts, seems almost curtailed live - like a greatest hits set. And there's a textuality to the studio recordings, a seemingly endless accumulation of musical layers, that can't really be reproduced live. To see them live and up close is an opportunity. But the best way to experience their music is still through watching those Argento films.
But let's finish on a broader question. When they are good, what is it that makes them so good? Well, of course they're good at being bad. All that Satan-bothering bollocks from the likes of Venom forgets the basic rule that the Devil is supposed to have the best tunes. With it's music box element the 'Suspira' theme is seductive, like a siren call. Listening to it is like taking a soporific drug, seducing you to sleep even as you feel your alarm systems trying desperately to kick in.
You wouldn't need to undertake much research into Seventies cinema to conclude it was a decade with the taste for the supernatural. Which makes it interesting that prog is so roundly condemned as cluelessly utopian. True, the convoluted, equipment-heavy music can seem inherently techno-fixxy. And of course bands such as Yes did indulge in terrible New Age babblings.
But there was also a more sinister side to the music. As recounted, Goblin's biggest influences were Genesis (think of the twisted nursery story of 'Music Box') and King Crimson. (Have you ever heard anything more dystopian than '21st Century Schizoid Man'?) This is probably another example of history being rewritten by turncoat music journalists after punk's victory. Prog had to be seen as blissed-out to contrast it against punk's tales of dole queues. (A kind of angst the best punk rarely went in for anyway.) Goblin are sidelined from this by being portrayed as film composers rather than a band who wrote for films.
Nowadays it seems every style of music has its own dark derivative, including Dark ambient, dark cabaret, dark folk and dark easy listening. (Okay, I suppose I may have made the last one up.) Maybe a music which genuinely had it's share of darkness, back in it's original era, should get it's place in the light. (Um, maybe that should be unlight.) After all, it doesn't get much more join-the-dark-side than Goblin...
Sampled highlights. You can probably guess which track kicks off...
Green Door Store, Brighton, Fri 21st Feb
Alternative TV are, as if we needed one, another example of an original British punk band who weren't the regressive and unimaginative force of popular caricature. (File alongside fellow recent sightings The Cravats, TV Smith and Subway Sect.)
Front man Mark Perry looked to have his official place in punk history assured, producing what's commonly regarded as the first British punk fanzine - 'Sniffin' Glue'. (Though I dare say some spiky headed trainspotter is naming some earlier effort even now.) It was punk-template enough to write it's headlines in felt pen and be named after a Ramones song. But (in his own words) “as I saw the initial punk explosion subside into a succession of third rate copyists, I wanted to have a go myself.” So he jacked the stapling in to form Alternative TV – with a sound “closer to Can and reggae-type rhythms”. The band's first release was a flexi attached to the fanzine's last issue. They've continued intermittently since, with frequent changes in personnel and even bigger nine-point turns in direction, a zig-zag of break-ups and reforms.
In their current live incarnation they offered up no short supply of classic punk - short, sharp numbers with the grabbiest of hooks. But other tracks stretched longer than the three-minute diktat, driven by metronomic riffs and frequently breaking out into instrumental sections – twin guitars clashing. Such tracks sounded like something from a long-gone free festival of the era, unhinged wig-outs accompanied by apparent stream-of-consciousness lyrics, a bizarre hybrid of declammatory recital and self-doubting inner voice. At one point Perry cheerily joined in on the recorder, not the most Ramones-like of instruments. (Back in the day they apparently had a fondness for full-on free impro, about the one direction they don't follow up on now.)
Perhaps the musical variety on show could have come from the set spanning several of their eras. But with the multi-directional approach, the best thing about it was all of it. It had both the driving force of punk and the elusive, amorphous feeling of post-punk – as if music was just to be played with, like plasticine. They played their classic track 'Splitting In Two' (“I'm splitting in two, and so are you!”), yet seemed perpetually pitched at the point the different sounds could still stay conjoined. As if they could never quite be pinned to anything, but in any second take off in other directions.
Was there ever really a time before punk being a marketing term? When it actually had something to do with imagination and freedom? It seems there was.
Not from Brighton. (You're probably getting used to that...)
Ropetackle Centre, Shoreham, Sat 22nd Feb
This marks the third time I've seen Blyth Power within four years, which now eclipses the sightings I managed in those days of yore. I expect that proves something or other, but I'm buggered if I know what.
It is of course always a pleasure to hear their unique blend of folk, rock and English songwriting. With nary an undertaste of their original punk roots. Harmonies can sound so sweet as to be almost poppy. And front-man Joseph Porter's patented puckish erudition was to the fore as always.
Despite the longevity (now over thirty years), they're no spent force or nostalgia act. We were treated to tracks from their as-yet-unreleased new album, 'Women and Horses, Power and War', which Porter cheerily told us at the merch stall will be their best yet. Even on the second time of hearing, I remain taken by 'Down With Alice', a riff on Crass's 'Berkertex Bride' which looks back somewhat sardonically on our armband-sporting youth. (“Man made plans for social change/ And fraudulent social security claims.” It's funny because it's true...) Porter jokingly dedicated it to anyone who secretly wanted to do the conga at a Crass gig. The next time I try to describe Blyth Power's sound I may even use that...
Performing at Shoreham Beer Festival, they brought compere Attila the Stockbroker on stage for a few numbers. (As ramshackle as ever, this involved a band member rummaging backstage to scout out an extra lead.) And his viola added so rich an extra element you wished he could become a regular member.
I have been slowly and haphazardly working my way through the band's back catalogue. (You have to say haphazardly, for alas they have more missing episodes than Patrick Troughton.) So one day I may even write a proper, fulsome, grown-up thing about Blyth Power. It might even make amends for the last thing I did write. Which in many ways I still like, but it was something of an indulgence - chiefly bending one song to my own purpose.
This, however, is not that moment. For now, let's just link to a potted history.
Nothing on YouTube from this gig, it seems. But there is now a video not only of their Hector's House showing, but of the very track I wrote about - 'Stitching In Time'. Go figure. This version sounds like the Velvets' 'Sunday Morning', somehow. (Audience ambience at no extra charge.)
...but as this is Blyth Power we're talking about, here's a second helping. This one from back in the day, where it was actually against the law to take to the dancefloor if you weren't wearing combats or a Crass T-shirt. Posted for no better reason than this track also made it into their Ropetackle set - 'Paradise Sold'. A song about the North/South divide, what better place to play it than the South coast?