Friday, 30 January 2015

ENCASED IN SOUND (HOW PUNK MET METAL - AND BOTH BEGAT DRONE): 4. “THE EARTH BREATHING FIRE...”


Our punk/metal/drone comparison timeline concludes. And as the young people say, dude, where ya been? You've missed sections taking us up to the Sixties, the Seventies and, logically enough, the Eighties. But it's here where the dial really goes up to eleven...

Kyuss: 'Thumb' (1992)


The Doors may have gone to the desert to find their mojo, but Kyuss essentially came from there. Long-haired freaks from Palm Desert, California, they started out playing generator parties in some sandy stretch of nowhere, or anywhere else where the authorities weren't. As guitarist Josh Homme commented “there's no clubs here, so you can only play for free”. If Homme's successor band, Queens of the Stone Age, came to be better known, to me its Kyuss who had the edge.

Kyuss made the music of giants, but laid-back cool-guy giants. (As if to prove the point, Homme was 6' 4”.) Even with the diss tracks, of which this is one, I still picture them boldly toasting one another with beer flagons the size of barrels. They mostly remind me of the Frank Quitely cover to 'All-Star Superman', (below) which shows the mighty-muscled man of steel not in some heroic pose but relaxing nonchalantly.


This is the opening track off 'Blue For the Red Sun', and if Sabbath were the soundtrack of blackest night Kyuss wrote paeans to the brightest day. For the day can be pretty mighty too. It doesn't start up so much as shimmer in, as if arriving through a heat haze. If Sabbath were the soundtrack to a breakdown, Kyuss always came across as assured. For all the heaviness, the weightiness of the band there always seemed space for... well space in their sound. Which is pretty much the definition of the term 'stoner rock' the band became so associated with. (Presumably because, out in the desert, they encountered a lot of stones. I expect that was it...)


Meanwhile, across the water in Liverpool, four mop-haired youths were about to change the course of popular music as we know it...

...whoops, sorry, wrong list...

Sleep: 'Holy Mountain' (1992)


Even when you make up apparent micro-genres like 'stoner rock' it always ends up not precise enough. It's like isolating the atom, you only end up having to split it anyway. While Kyuss were a rock band assured enough to stretch out riffs, Sleep simply dealt in riffs. They play music so metronomic you think you'll never wake up.

Alas, record company indifference caused the band to split early. The rhythm section went on to form Om. Whose direction, as the name might suggest, was less metal influenced and still-more trancy. With sleeves and lyrics that reflected religious mysticism, they make the music all those New Age fakers seem to imagine they are making. Their defining moment might well be playing a five-hour gig in Jerusalem.

Probably the finest Sleep album is the follow-up to this, 'Jerusalem' (aka 'Dopesmoker', but its one long track which makes it a little unwieldy for our format. So I've gone for 'Holy Mountain'. Given the music we're talking about, it surely must refer to the cult film by Jodorowski.


Electric Wizard: 'Funeralopolis' (2000)


The one exception to the West Coast rule mentioned earlier and – as I expect you've already guessed – they're from Dorset. If other bands combined Black Sabbath with all sorts of then-unexpected things, Electric Wizard's mission statement was almost to sound more like Black Sabbath than Black Sabbath did. Their name came from combining the Sabbath song titles 'The Wizard' and 'Electric Funeral'. But a better name still might have been just to condense the name Black Sabbath – Blabbath or Blasab.


Sunn O))): 'Hunting & Gathering (Cydonia)' (2009)


I would be the last to suggest that this list, or any other aspect of musical development, makes for some kind of linear progression. As the diligent reader will already have discovered, all that's here is more journey than destination. Nevertheless, somehow I feel like it had to end like this. Music comes from the drone, the single held note, the way all the land masses we live on know came from the original super-continent Pangea. Those thudding riffs were like the first breakaway continents, separate but still grand and massive. So it kind of stands to reason music will revert to the drone from time to time. In music, you can go home again. And it sounds something like this...

This track was named the Heaviest Song of All Time on The Jason Ellis Show. You'll see why. If you could get any more encased in sound, I simply can't imagine it. As you might expect from a band named after a brand of amplifier, there's also an abundance of feedback and electronically generated sounds. They make music from the equipment you make music from, and make no bones about it. Live, they are wont to hold their instruments aloft like religious artefacts (see up top). One of the many things about the band which might sound ludicrously ostentatious, but works in context.

Yet, in effect if not always in source, they can also approximate music concrete – weaving together natural sounds. The guitar line here is so primal and such a force of nature that it barely sounds human-made enough for you to imagine it being composed, its more akin to rockslides or earthquakes. And other sounds on the album, 'Monoliths and Dimensions', do seem to have natural sources – such as the tightening of the rigging of a ship. Perhaps the genius of the thing is the way it stops you even noticing.

Similarly, rather than black, Satanic, nihilistic or any other of those terms that are so often slung at them, Sunn O))) seem more the perfect pitch-point between crushing force and transcendence. However pulverising the riff or guttural the lead vocals, put it with the choral singing and the two just fit together. Drone and ambient music is often divided into 'light' and 'dark', whereas as is probably obvious by this point I prefer 'weighty' and 'weightless'. ('Light' works best in terms of 'lightness', absence of weight.)

Yet the advantage of the light/dark analogy is that they're part of a spectrum. It can suggest our natural state is twilight. I love the way the official heaviest track of all time is followed on the album by an ambient piece dedicated to Alice Coltraine. Not content with just sounding like punk and metal coming together, Sunn O))) are like the soundtrack to the marriage of heaven and hell. The whole myth of Lucifer the fallen angel effectively plays in reverse in my mind whenever I listen to this. I could happily have it played at my funeral.

(More from me on Sunn 0))) here.)


Okay, who's missing from the list? Many people will cry Discharge, but to me they're a bit like rock'n'roll - they demonstrate how something can be influential without actually being particularly good. I can hear the metal crossover in them of course, but overall they still sound just like another ranting crusty band. (I came of age in the Eighties, gentle reader, where we had no shortage of such a thing.) I have of course also missed out the 'big four' of thrash. With Slayer and Anthrax, it may well be they're decent bands who just aren't to my taste. While Megadeath were just rubbish. And Metallica were not only rubbish, but rubbish produced by a bunch of arrogant self-important arses who I would cheerfully wish the pox upon.

On the other hand, I've probably missed out much good stuff through sheer ignorance. My listening prejudices have most likely resulted in a list that details punk meeting metal more than the other way round, and I'd welcome any suggestions for a companion metal list. (Tool should be in there? Faith No More? Helmet? Or Celtic Frost?) Reader, please don't be backward in coming forward...

Saturday, 24 January 2015

ENCASED IN SOUND (HOW PUNK MET METAL - AND BOTH BEGAT DRONE): 3. DESTROY! ANNIHILATE! INCINERATE!


Our punk/metal/drone comparison timeline reaches the Eighties and even touches on the Nineties. (First part covers the Sixties here while the second recounts the Seventies over here.)

Black Flag: 'My War' (1984)


Black Flag were our man at the crossroads, this is the the point where the streams cross. People argue over who first hit on the phrase “like a cross between Black Flag and Black Sabbath”. But there's no real debate over the first band to do it – and that band was Black Flag themselves. Which makes the crossover more significant. Black Flag hasn't been a hardcore band, they'd virtually been the hardcore band. They were the one who defined the sound – angry, direct, assertive, uncompromising, and above all over inside of two and a half minutes.

Moreover, legal problems had prevented the workaholic and once-prolific band releasing anything for the past three years. (Once off the leash, they released two further albums before '84 was even up.) And in the intervening time their sound had shifted massively, shaving off the punk spikiness for something much more sludgy, more glowering, more ominous – more (you guessed it) Black Sabbath. All of which accentuated the sense that they were not just now slow but anti-fast, like a calculated rebuke to the jock slamdancers. (In that way it also weirdly seems to match the mood of some of the more primal-screamy stuff off Lennon's 'Plastic Ono Band', such as 'God'.)

If it sounds unbelievably bleak, hold it up against their earlier output - it just gets darker. Earlier lyrics slipped into the united third person as easily as the Doors track from the first part (“We are tired of your abuse/Try to stop us, its no use”), this time its all first person versus third. It's like Sartre's 'No Exit' in song form. “You say that you're my friend/But you're one of them” is like the end-point of existentialism, an accusation hitched on the back of an tautology. Notably, Rollins sings as if facing down his audience rather than performing to them. This confrontational interview with him, simultaneously hilarious and excruciating, dates from the same era.

“Destroy! Annihilate! Incinerate!” You have now reached utter nihilism. All change please...


Bad Brains: 'I Against I' (1986)


Followers of Rastafarianism, the band would have been familiar with and probably used the Rasta expression “I and I”. (Used in daily speech, such as “I and I need to sign on next Tuesday”, but to signify spiritual connection - “Jah and I”.) Except of course they invert it to depict modern America as in the most ungodly of states – the war of each against all, which can only serve to bring us all down. In that sense, despite their outward similarities, it's almost the counter to 'My War' - it rails against a situation in which its companion virtually revels. (“I said whose gonna tell the youth about...the rotten stinkin' rackets and the fantasies around the nation.”) Not for the first time HR sounds almost like a preacher as he cries “I tell you the truth is looking straight at you!”

As I often like to point out, great bands are able to straddle apparent contradictions, and Bad Brains could sound heavy at the same time they sounded lithe and nimble. Their roots were as a jazz fusion band and those roots never quite went away.

This was about the point where I'd first left home and was going to see bands. While at school there'd been a virtual Berlin wall between the punks and the headbangers, by then it simply never occurred to me to try and divide up the bands I was seeing into punk and metal categories. Slightly earlier than that other wall, the barriers had been busted down.


More than usual, this next one ain't for the fainthearted...

Swans: 'Coward' (1986)


This is Swans from their early brutal noise era, described by the uploader as “cathartic performance, mountains of sound without melody”. I went a little back and forward about including this, as it could be said to really belong in another timeline. Despite strong similarities to Black Flag's unremitting bleakness, the band came more from the New York noise and art punk scene than from hardcore. Hardcore fundamentalists often nursed an antipathy to 'bohemian' New York, and it may be notable that every subsequent name on this list (with one exception) will be West Coast. For his part frontman Gira despised metal so much he was known to attack audience members for headbanging. (I shall leave it to the reader's judgement whether he himself is headbanging in this clip.)

All of which might go some way to explaining my wondering whether this band actually belong here. But they were perhaps the ultimate in boiling music down to a blunt instrument. Why go for more when you can just have less? The pummelling force denies any concept of release, rock without the roll. (Try imagining dancing to this.) Like the Stooges, its stripped back to such a degree you can't tell any more whether its regressive or avant garde. There's the lyrical parallels between themes of annihilation and transcendence, as can be found in many other places round here. Plus Gira even dedicated a later track ('Just a Little Boy' from 'To Be Kind') to Chester Burnett, real name of Howling Wolf. So the similarities are there, if not the direct links.

(I've written about the current incarnation of Swans not once but twice.)


Nomeansno: 'The Tower' (1989)


The Peanuts character Pigpen was always depicted carrying a cloud of dust around with him. Similarly, Nomeansno always seemed to be wading waist-deep in thick, thick bass. To look at Eighties hardcore and decide what it needed was to be more bass-driven and rhythmic, I'm not sure whether that took an excess of guts or a deficiency of reason. The band have since confirmed that they arrived at that sound simply because in the early days they didn't have anyone to play guitar.


Though perhaps their killer app was to stretch out songs from the standard abrupt hardcore length, and their Bad Brains-like ability to bend the music without breaking the heavy riffing. It was a style described as "Devo on a jazz trip, Motörhead after art school, or Wire on psychotic steroids”. In a scene which too quickly became identikit they were immediately recognisable as hardcore and completely unique at the same time.

I partly picked this track because of the uncanny ease with which they lyrically match punk existentialism to hard rock's dark romanticism. The human figure who narrates and the Tower/black obelisk he encounters are the ultimate irresistible force and immovable object combination. And “The sword is truth is just another weapon/ Let me live for one more second” must be one of the great opening couplets.


The Melvins: 'Boris' (1991)


Though the Melvins formed back in '83, and were important from early on, this may be the point they hit their lumbering epitome. (Even if it officially pushes us into the Nineties.) It sounds like a hardcore punk song stretched out and slowed down, like a single played on '33 with the bottom end of the sound turned up all the way. Rather than sluggish, the result is something remorseless. The way the distortion becomes part of the track is very similar to the Stooges or Motorhead. If Swans were like blows repeatedly pummelling you, the Melvins sound like a landslide slowly but surely tearing up everything in it's path. 

By going for weight not speed they allowed hardcore punk to escape from it's louder/faster corner, gave it a way to hook up with hard rock that bypassed all the then-trendy hair metal bollocks and piledrove a road that led to grunge. Though Flipper were also an important band, they were too arch, too bohemian, too native of San Francisco to truly embrace metal. Whereas the Melvins hailed from Washington state.

If Swans don't quite fit the family tree, the Melvins couldn't be any more in the DNA. Dale Crover drummed for an early version of Nirvana, while Buzz Osborne later introduced Dave Grohl to the rest of the band. Ex-bassist Matt Lukin went on to form Mudhoney. They've made albums with Jello Biafra, and legendary Japanese band Boris are named after this very track. The Melvins are one of those foundations bands, who most people haven't heard of but they made so much possible. (More by me on the Melvins here.)


Mudhoney: 'Touch me I'm Sick' (1988)


There's no doubting grunge rescued punk, ended its self-imposed cornering from the rest of the room and got it back into talking with other genres. (Something it had always done before all that dead-end harder-than-hardcore malarkey.) But while grunge did take up from the Melvins, that band had a definite metal influence while grunge was much more focused on classic rock. (Plus, though no-one ever seems to want to mention it, the fuzztoned Sixties garage punk of those fabled Nuggets and Pebbles compilations. Try playing this against the earlier Electric Prunes track.)

The title, simultaneously engaging and threatening, is pretty typical of punk's agitational engagement of the audience, and the band's black sense of humour. Mudhoney were, as an flue kno, the definitive grunge band, even if they weren't the best-known one. (More by me on Mudhoney here.)


Coming soon! The Nineties to the present day...

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!

Friday, 16 January 2015

ENCASED IN SOUND (HOW PUNK MET METAL - AND BOTH BEGAT DRONE): 1. 'NOT READY TO FACE THE LIGHT'


Muddy Waters famously sang “the blues had a baby and they called it rock'n'roll”. (Though perhaps both gospel and country should have been subject to a paternity test.) In a similar fashion, this post could be called something like “how punk and metal had a longstanding love/hate relationship, which somewhere along the way begat something new which mixed drone with more popular music styles”. Yep, I can just imagine Muddy singing something snappy like that.

It kind of outgrew my following – and making frequent nuisance calls to – Mike Taylor's heavy metal timeline. As Mike's list reached an era I confess to finding bog-standard and plodding, my mind started to refocus on a strand of music which may be less-trodden but which matters more to me. Anyone who followed Mike's timeline may find some of my comments here to evoke a sense of deja vu. Then again, arguably that's appropriate - for repetition becomes something of a theme. It also takes something of a scenic route, so please expect detours and digressions. In fact hesitation is about the only 'Just a Minute' rule that won't be broken.

(Disclaimer: drone music of course has its own history, with the Theatre of Eternal Music already performing in New York in the mid-Sixties. But that was really a scene of its own. We're talking about a separate history here, in which drone intermingles and crossbreeds with other, more 'popular' genres.)

We'll start with the pioneers, the prototypes and precursors and get on to the rest in future instalments. (Of which there'll be four.) And let's start the start by looking into the blues when it was first stretching its trousers and eating for two…

Howling Wolf: 'Smokestack Lightning' (1956)


This is one of my favourite tracks by my favourite blues artist, describedby Robert Palmer as “a hypnotic one-chord drone piece". Art can be like a dish, find it the right ingredients and you don't really need that many. 

But, particularly when adorned with Wolf's (there is no other word) howling, this sounds elegant as much as raw. It belies the listener with its simplicity. It's not deep or low or rumbling, it kind of floats. Plus, and not unassociatedly, as was often the case with Wolf's music there is something spectral, some taste of the unearthly to it. It sounds like music which could pass through walls. Which will be a bit of a theme here. Heaviness can be powerful. But lightness has its own effect.

Which kind of fits. Even today, some remain who try to pigeonhole blues as rural and primitive music – a basic crop waiting for smarter white people to come along and innovate cleverer stuff which incorporated it. But by this point, blues had become urban and urbane. Successful acts such as Wolf (and he was a huge hit among black audiences), sported smart suits. They only put on the dungarees and straw hats for white audiences.


Reader, the decade-long gap between this and the next selection, you will have to decide whether that describes the way it was or merely reflects the author's prejudices. But for my money rock'n'roll wasn't an advance on blues, any more than it was on gospel or country. There's rock'n'roll I like, of course. But it was like the arrival of Indian or Carribbean food in Britain, it was a watered-down product calculatedly softened to suit the more straightened pallettes of mainstream white society. Rock'n'roll was of course massively culturally important - in introducing black music to white people it broke a divide and completely changed music. We're still riding those shockwaves today. But to make that cultural impact it had to regress the actual music.

The Rolling Stones: 'The Last Time' (1965)


When talking of the precursors of heavy, riff-bases music it's normally the early Kinks or Who whose names get rolled out. But for our potted history this Stones track is much more important. The main difference between it and, say, ‘You Really Got Me’ lies in the riff itself. ‘Really Got Me’ has a propulsive riff. It’s a musical motif with a beginning, middle and end, even if its set to repeat. It’s effect is like the singer reciting the same words over and over. It’s a riff to power a song.

Whereas ‘The Last Time’ has a riff that’s still-more basic, to the point where it takes on a life of its own. The riff has it's own separate existence, merely framed by the song. It doesn’t really have a beginning or end. It just cycles, it oscillates. You can wrap a song around it, and they do. But it’s like wrapping a sock around a cosh. The cosh is it’s own thing. Particularly after this track, when making music the riff was out of the bag. (Is that mixing my metaphors? Well, you know what I mean!)
One time I saw Julian Cope line he deliberately failed to finish a song, reasoning that it was launched without being landed it would carry on in perpetuity. Similarly, there's something timeless about 'The Last Time'...
The Electric Prunes: 'I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)' (1966)

It's quite hilarious to discover that such a garage rock classic wasn't thrown onto tape by angsty, agitated youth but provided to order by a professional songwriting team (Annette Tucker and lyricist Nancie Mantz). Though quite consciously influenced by the Stones, and though the track's built round a classic riff, the riff isn't played perpetually in the same way. (That would be truer of the follow-up, 'Get Me To The World On Time'.) But for a good reason...
As we'll often find, the music and lyrics don't so much go together, like they've been allocated one another from some dating agency's database, as morph into one another. Though it approximates a love song, the lyrics are actually quite ambiguous whether the golden-haired girl was real or imaginary. Instead elements come and go, clash against one another, melodies become subsumed by riffs; it's deliberately discordant in order to convey a semi-psychotic state of mind. It was a theme familiar to garage rock; there was, for example the Swinging Medallion's 'Double Shot of My Baby's Love'. But the Electric Prunes were more... well... electric.
It's easy to imagine Sixties music started as sunny and blissed out, and soured as things wore on. But the hangover couldn't be any more present here. In many ways it sounds like the band are genuinely trying to perform a prettier, cheerier number but the weight of the truth comes crashing in. That fuzziness to the sound is important. Its that woozy, disorientating feeling you get when you look at the world through a fish-eye lens, captured in sound.
The Doors: 'Five To One' (1968)

A long-haired Californian band best known for love songs, whose sound prominently featured a swirling, melodic organ. And yet even at the height of punk's Year Zero rhetoric, where admission to liking Led Zeppelin was a worse sin than sporting a swastika, no-one was ever quite able to consign the Doors to history. A track like 'Five To One' might go some way to explain that.
Like 'The Last Time', it's a song wrapped around a crunching riff. The organ this time round doesn't get much chance to swirl. The doors of perception aren't so much cleansed as booted in. However, its chief significance is the way that crunching riff is so unhurried. Listening to it you can feel a little like the deer dazzled by the headlights of the lumbering juggernaut; theoretically you have time to move, but you can't. It just all feels too inevitable, somehow. There's a section where, with the guitar reduced to the riff, the drums fill out to occupy the space – watch out for that one.
And matching that riff is the confrontational nature of the lyrics. Dylan may have already written songs which dissed “you” in such a declammatory fashion, yet it gains a new impact when wedded to music of such thudding force. It was during a performance of this track where, in an infamous on-stage incident in Miami, a drug-addled Morrison derided the audience as “all slaves” and was nearly prosecuted for inciting a riot.
Yet despite that anecdote and despite the track being released in that most historic of years, the lyrics are most likely not as agitational as they appear. In the Sixties the situation was often seen as a generational war, leading to the popular saying “there's more of us being born and there's more of them dying”. (Of course hippies were only ever a minority even amongst the youth, so the idea was nonsense even as it was being uttered. But we're talking here about a perception.) “No-one here gets out alive” means we all go sometime, but they'll be first. “We've got the numbers” means, at some point or other, we're just going to replace them. “Five To One” doesn't match any actual social ratio that anyone's ever managed to come up with, and is a reference perhaps best understood by Morrison and his drug dealer. But it fuzzily fits inside this perception of it all being a matter of evening up the odds.
But that perception is what counts, for the song feels a whole new level of confrontational. Crucially, its not asking for anything. It's not a protest song or even a resistance song so much as a victory speech. (“We're going to Win/ Yeah, we're taking over/ Come on!”) Come to that, it's not even a particularly graceful victory speech, its more exultant and triumphalist. It's self-confident swaggar less resembles Jefferson Airplane's incendiary call to arms 'Volunteers' and is perhaps closer to something like Free's 'All Right Now', albeit with political victory replacing sexual conquest. It's stripped-down quality creates the same sense of space, like a drawing might creatively employ white space. Morrison part-slurs, part-proclaims the lyrics. (Some accounts claim he was drunk during the recording.) Notably, the hippie hopefully but hopelessly holding a flower is effectively likened to the wage slave “trading your hours of a handful of dimes”, both objects of derision. Turning up holding a flower for a track like this was just asking for trouble.
The Stooges: 'I'm Loose' (1970)

It can be as interesting who doesn't make a list like this as who does. The Velvets were influenced by the Stones' 'Last Time' and had the most clearly drone-based sound of all, even recruiting John Cale from the Theatre of Eternal Music. (Who took his scraping viola when he moved.) But they weren't really proto-metal in any way. Even as they were unhinged they were always somehow cerebral, like they were overdosing on street drugs and modern literature simultaneously. If they'd unleash the power of the drone in their music, it was in the way Prospero would conjure up storms.
It was the Stooges who were the Caliban-like creatures inside the drone.
Early on the Stooges had a more experimetal/drone sound, using extemporised instruments such as oil cans for drums or a vacuum cleaner to... well, most likely to create a vacuum cleaner sound. Iggy said later: “It was entirely instrumental at this time, like jazz gone wild. It was very north African, a very tribal sound: very electronic. We would play like that for about ten minutes. Then everrybody would have to get really stoned again... But what we put into those ten minutes was so total and so very savage - the earth shook, then cracked.” And even if that side of their sound later yielded to something closer to regular rock music, it never quite went away. It hung around like a ghost whose business on earth was not yet done.
In it's glorying in its own fucked-up-ness 'I'm Loose' is very much more proto-punk than proto-metal. But its significance is in the distortion not being trimmings, not there to enhance the song but very much part of the song. As with the Electric Prunes, it's not a song with a sound attached to it, the two can't be separated.
Punk had now shaken its six. Qualifier terms like 'proto punk' or 'garage punk' were no longer required. While with metal..

Friday, 9 January 2015

'COLOURS I'D NEVER SEEN' (ANOTHER SPOTIFY PLAYLIST)


Ladies and gentlemen, the latest Lucid Frenzy playlist is now available for your delicatation and pleasure. Mostly consisting of folk, blues and country but with some of that post-punk shennaigans thrown in for good measure. Just click the header...

The Waterboys: 'Malediction'
Jeffrey Lewis: 'The Gasman Cometh'
Arcade Fire: 'Windowsill'
Califone: 'Salt'
The Rolling Stones: 'I Got The Blues'
Hank Williams: 'I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry'
Odetta: 'Make Me a Pallet on the Floor'
Pentangle: 'Train Song'
Fotheringay: 'The Ballad Of Ned Kelly'
Sandy Denny: 'John The Gun'
June Tabor: 'She Moves Among Men (The Bar Maid's Song)'
Richard Thompson: 'King Of Bohemia'
Current 93: 'Kings and Things'
Tunng: 'King'
Mission Of Burma: 'Trem Two'
The Fall: 'Riddler!'
Gillian Welch: 'Wrecking Ball'

”I met a lovesick daughter of the San Joaquin
She showed me colours I'd never seen
Drank the bottom out of my canteen
Then left me in the fall
Like a wrecking ball"