Wednesday, 21 January 2015

ENCASED IN SOUND (HOW PUNK MET METAL - AND BOTH BEGAT DRONE): 2. “TIME SEEMS LIKE IT'LL NEVER BEGIN”


The second instalment in this chronological playlist recounting how punk, metal and drone crashed into one another. The first part, set in the Sixties, can be found here. This time we turn to the Seventies...

Black Sabbath: 'Black Sabbath' (1970)


The riff to 'Black Sabbath' is the riff that launched a thousand bands, the riff that quite conceivably created a new style of music. I

Brian Eno once said he thought the appeal of metal was the feeling of being “encased in sound”. (A quote you may even remember from the title.) And that was never more clearly in evidence than here. Of the 'big three' bands that inaugurated hard rock (with Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple), Sabbath were the most proto-metal. It's all here in this track from their first album. Depending on who you talk to, they either renamed the band after it or named the track after the band's freshly minted new name. (They were previously a more bluesy outfit called Earth.) So even Sabbath themselves were effectively launched on the back of this.
The whole sound of the genre is there in that inaugural moment - the nightmarish intensity, the dirgey pace, the ominous guitar riff piling resonance onto dissonance until its notes never seem to end. Yes, the lyrics are typically endearingly goofy (“Satan’s coming ’round the bend/People running ’cause they’re scared”), but they work within the context of the music - which is all they need to do. (They were normally written last, and as chief word-writer Geezer Butler commented “You wanted to capture lyrically what [guitarist] Tony [Iommi] was doing musically”.) This track was one of those game-changer moments in music and continues to thrill the listener even today.
Yet in a sense it looked back as much as forward. That Doors trick of letting the drums fill out as the guitar's confined to the riff? Listen on... Yet there's important differences, which are what pushes Sabbath deeper into that sound. Even when the Sixties underground prophesied conflict and conflagration there was an underlying optimism to it all, perhaps summed up in the afore-mentioned Doors line “they got the guns but we got the numbers”. Whereas, Seventies working class Brummie lads, born to be factory fodder rather than frolic in fields, Sabbath were less convinced peace and love lay within arms reach. They would have probably replied, “yeah, but they've got the guns”. The Doors were inflammatory, and fire implies light. Whereas Sabbath were dark.
Faust: 'Party 2/ J'ai Mal Aux Dents' (1973)

Krautrock band Faust had a Dadaistic anti-music approach, typified here in the way the riff is chiefly provided by the insistently repeating backing vocals. They variously claim to have a pain in the teeth and in the feet, imparting this information in French despite the lead vocals being in English and the band being German. While the lead vocal reassures “you can hear it without shoes”. To Faust language is just a broken object you keep around for aesthetic reasons.
It's ridiculously simple, to the point of being metronomic, yet when you combine those simple elements the whole feels so much more like a sum of its parts. The way the keyboards float freely above the riff kind of reminds me of Wolf's howling in 'Smokestack Lightning'. It's neither cacophonous nor ordered, but somehow both at the same time. It's like the mental sparks struck by splicing together sewing machines and umbrellas in Surrealist poetry. I must have listened to it hundreds of times and I still have no idea whether its absolute genius or total wind-up.
But I guess what gives it its place in this timeline is that backing-vocal-as-riff motif. The rest of Sabbath used to marvel at guitarist Tommy Iommi's ability to keep coming up with great riffs, which they then just had to wrap a song around. But Faust aren't finding something they like so much they want to repeat it. They're starting with a nonsense phrase most probably chosen at random – the point comes from the repetition.
Perhaps befitting the art pranksters, I'm not even sure what date to put in this timeline. A version appeared on the early tape-collage LP 'The Faust Tapes', which in its first release at least eschewed a track listing. Different versions have since appeared under both titles under different compilations. (With the link below I've gone for a less fractured later version.) Which was all part of the band's plan to make releases into 'official bootlegs', designed to look more like bulletins than contemplative art objects, and never create a definitive version of anything. And they're still at it today...
Pere Ubu: '30 Seconds Over Tokyo' (1975)

The first ever single released by legendary Cleveland art-punkers Pere Ubu was split between the difficult, challenging B-side and the even-more difficult and challenging B-side. Both were written by Pete Laughner, then the mainstay of the band. I've gone for the B-side here. Simon Reynolds describes the track as “some loping, rhythmically sprained hybrid of Black Sabbath and reggae... lurches into a sort of doomladen canter, then expires in a spasm of blistered feedback”. (He goes on, including the phrase “scrofulous with twisted virtuosity”, in a description almost as enthralling as the track itself.)  
Indeed there’s the same sense of primarily sonic adventuring as we saw with Sabbath - rather than the music illustrating the words, the words exist to describe the ominous, ponderous music. There’s two separate references to the flow of time being arrested. (For example “This dream won't ever seem to end/ And time seems like it'll never begin.”) Notably it has a similar structure to 'Black Sabbath', deathly slow with sudden bursts of speed. (Though while Sabbath go for remorselessness, the artier Ubu throw in sudden and unexpected twists.) The imagery is often of the fantastical nature you expect more from hard rock than punk songs – strange gods, metal dragons. Overall, its probably punk-discovers-mogadon-riffs rather than punk-meets-metal. But its on the path.
The track draws both its title and scenario from a book and subsequent film of the bombing of Tokyo. The song then throws the later nuclear bomb into the mix. But all of that is only to describe the song’s inception. It takes an already indescribably horrific event, an upturned nail in world history and reflects it through a nightmarish distorting mirror. (“Some kind of dream world fantasy.”) The death-dealing American bomber is symbolically fused with the solitary Japanese kamikaze pilot. (“No place to run, no place to hide/ No turning back on a suicide ride.”)

But none of that is what the song is really about. Instead the lone destructive mission becomes a metaphor for the isolated artist, trapped in an antagonistic relationship with society. Thematically the nearest track to it would be This Heat’s ‘Not Waving But Drowning’, a song whose release was virtual career suicide and whose subject was career suicide. The payload the song drops on the “toy city” is in many ways the song itself. Unleashing it will most likely destroy everybody present. It’s plane as garret, studio as missile.

The history of Pere Ubu is uncannily similar to the story of Joy Division and New Order, the dark visionary character who created their early sound but whose early death necessitated a sudden change in approach. (Though in Laughner’s case there’s dispute over whether his was suicide.) David Thomas then took the lead, with an Ubu closer to the Alfred Jarry character that gave the band its name, grotesque and absurd. Thomas whinnied and raged like a devil clown inflamed and inflated by a cocktail of helium and hallucinogens. He would probably take great umbrage at the idea the band has anything in common with metal. He takes great umbrage at most things, after all. I went to see them not so long ago, and deranged they remain. But that’s a story for another time…

Motorhead: 'Motorhead' (1977)


Here we go with another band named after a song. As with Black Sabbath, this is 'Motorhead' appearing on 'Motorhead' by Motorhead. Sometimes you need to reinforce a point. Lemmy had written the song in '75 while still in Hawkwind, though they only used it for a B-side. He then re-used it two years later on Motorhead's eponymous first LP. And, as with Black Sabbath, it's the moment when he hit on his own sound. Of the three tracks he'd written during his Hawkwind stint to be used by Motorhead, it's the only one to sound better this way. The Hawkwind version is slightly too sedate to capture the reckless, restless mind of a speedfreak (“I should be tired/All I am is wired”), with the more relentless Motorhead version capturing the symbiosis of epiphany and psychosis. And, as with Black Sabbath, it was used to open the album. However the band didn't break through until later, and the version most remember - and linked to below - is a live rendition released in 1981. Lemmy later exulted he'd written the only hard rock song to contain the word 'parallelogram'.

Given that Motorhead's first gig was in '75 and even the classic Lemmy/Clarke/Taylor line-up was in place by March '76, I don't think the oft-cited line that the band were influenced by Brit punk really fits. True, Lemmy has said his original idea was a band “just like the MC5”. But their sound was essentially set before punk really broke over here. They and punk were fellow travellers, true, but they sprang from different starting blocks.

Yet when they did break through they became fantastically popular not just with metalheads or even with punks, but (perhaps most surprising of all) with the general record-buying public. A string of hit singles ('Motorhead' itself reaching number six) led their gnarly faces to incongruously appear alongside prettified pop stars on the likes of 'Top Of the Pops'.


Given such success, it might in retrospect seem odd how few doors the band knocked down, especially as their revved-up sound seemed custom-built for the purpose. Yet at the time they were somehow more beloved than influential.

Of course their main innovation, formally speaking, was to strip the blues base from under hard rock and so sharpen it into metal. But like the MC5 or the Stooges, their stripped-down sound was impossible to separate from their songs and made them something of an entity. They were to metal what 'Lord of the Rings' was to fantasy novels. They were so good at it they kind of defined the sound, creating a genre and taking command of it in one fell swoop.

And while they were the metal band loved by punks, they didn't influence punk music all that much. By the standards of their day, Motorhead were incredibly fast. But, particularly by the time it came to hardcore, punk's recipe was pretty much loud/fast already. At least initially, hardcore needed to assert its identity by upstaging punk – which meant being still-louder, still-faster and lightweights can leave if they like. It didn't need any lessons in being fast. Metal often sounded chugging and plodding by comparison, heavy but like a heavy truck – something to overtake on the motorway. 

What punk needed to be told was that it didn't have to be fast, that it could be released from that ever-accelerating trajectory, that fast can just be an obstacle to being heavy. (The 'fast-over-all' trajectory ended with grindcore bands such as Napalm Death performing tracks only a few seconds long.) Ultimately, Sabbath were probably more of an actual influence than Motorhead.


And speaking of which...

Well, stay tuned, kids!

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