Saturday 30 March 2019


The grunge band Pearl Jam were once commended by a Guardian interviewer for their right-minded, if unsuccessful, attempts to challenge corporate price gougers Ticketmaster. But they brushed off the idea. "Bands like Fugazi,” they commented, “make us look like Mariah Carey."

Fugazi’s credo of punk as self-responsibility is effectively summed up on ‘Bad Mouth’: “Time is now, it's running out… /So you better start living the life that you're talking about.” The band formed in ‘87, after the first wave of hardcore punk, when many scene-setting bands had come and gone, and soon became the figureheads for DIY culture. (Own-label releases, no-overheads self-booked tours, lowest prices possible and so on.)

Yet what may have been exemplary also become an encumbrance. Too many responded either with shoulder-shrugging devotion-as-evasion (“if only we could all be like Fugazi”) or nit-pickingly, trying to catch them out over some trivial detail. Which misses the point twice over. First, isn’t that lyric addressed to us? Isn’t the question how we live our lives? Second, and more importantly, none of this would matter… in fact, most likely we wouldn’t even know of it… if Fugazi hadn’t been a great band.

As Andy Kellman of All Music Guide says: “if history is kind to Fugazi, their records won't be overshadowed by their reputation and methods of operation... they will instead be known for their intelligent songwriting and undeniably proficient musicianship.”

In ye olde days there was an endless slew of badly photocopied punk fanzines, full of interviews in five-point type where no-hope bands of interchangeable names. Each one would insist by rote they wouldn’t sell out for a million dollars. To which you always thought “of course you won’t, your band’s shit, mate.” Whereas Fugazi really were offered million-dollar deals by majors. Offers they turned down flat.

Fugazi were formed by Ian MacKaye, already a pioneer of the Washington DC hardcore scene. His previous outfits had been short-lived and beset by differences, with Minor Threat breaking up after band members wanted to - yes, really - sound more like U2. So he resolved to not launch into his next groupuntil everything, musically and ethically, seemed solid. (‘Waiting Room’, the opening track of the first album, is thought to concern this: “I won't make the same mistakes/ Because I know how much time that wastes/ Function is the key”.) Yet if it led to a band with a solid line-up for its sixteen-year history, perhaps it’s most important element came more by chance. Which was Gui Picciotto becoming second frontman.

Picciotto’s original outfit Rites of Spring released a total of one album and one EP, and performed a mere fifteen shows, all bar two in their native DC area. But they were the classic case of the small stone who produced huge ripples.

Simultaneously widening and personalising the subject matter of punk songs, they soon gained the tag ‘emo’. (Not at that point associated with tweeny angst-pop, though Picciotto was even then disdainful of the term. And MacKaye didn’t like it much either.) Introspective while fulsomely expressive, they seemed to recognise no distinction between personal transformation and social change. As their Stravinski-derived name might suggest, they reunited punk energy with the Romantic spirit, perhaps best captured in the lyric “the world is my fuse”

Picciotto later remembered: “The shows were always ‘events’ for us. Back then, a bad show was really crippling. Every show had to be momentous. We put everything into them. We treated them almost like religious occasions. The reaction we got was incredible.”

Whereas before Fugazi MacKaye’s main band,Minor Threat, were not just an originating but perhaps the default hardcore band. Notably theirs is the photo adorning Wikipedia’s entry on hardcore punk. Yet he became a keen fan of Rites of Spring,attending all their gigs and producing both their releases. And his next band, the short-lived Embrace, demonstrated their influence.To be frank, I suspect it was Rites of Spring who pushed MacKaye from a decent punk artist to a great one.

Yet Picciotto was not just the last member to join, the band were originally planned as a trio. His involvement slowly grew, from roadying to on-stage dancing, to backing vocals, finally to full member. (He’s later cheerfully admitted that had been his plan all along.)

Significantly, the original plan was for him to be MacKaye’s “foil”. (As Flava Flav had been for Chuck D, or Hanin Elias for Alec Empire.) Beginning with Lennon and McCartney, bands have often thrived off having two distinct but complementary songwriters to spark off one another. MacKaye’s songs were typically driving and relentless, developing an argument, pressing home a point. He retained from his Minor Threat days a love of punchy choruses, and the audience singalongs theyoften promoted. His key ability was to combine measuredness with frenzy. 

While Picciotto’s songs were torrentially emotive and allusive, romantic in the Rousseauian sense of the word. (A typical lyric of his: “He's alone/ His mind is his own town/ Where his thoughts run aground/ They fall all over and down”.)

As Michael Azarrad put it: “MacKaye’s sober athleticism found its polar opposite in Picciotto’s almost hammy sensuality, a formidable yin and yang that powered the band’s galvanic performances.”MacKaye jocularly compared their approaches to the drill sergeant and the mealy mouthed guy.

Azerrad’s also described Picciotto’s performance as “scenery-chewing”, and there is a sense in which he’s a Method actor’s idea of what a punk singer would do. Check out this version of ’Burning’,with his Marlon-Brando-as-dockworker vest and intensity, almost completely disregarding the audience. (The song also gives us our header, “I wanted a language of my own”.) compare to Ian MacKaye on the afore-mentioned ’Bad Mouth’

The band commonly played all-ages shows at non-conventional venues, here the Sacred Heart Church in their native DC. The gig feels like a communalising experience, not just with the absence of a still figure in the house (well at least not anyone not wearing a yellow cap) but the lack of rigid dividing line between band and audience.

MacKaye’s Minor Threat songs had been quite narrow in content as well as style, a magnifying glass held over himself or the hardcore scene he inhabited. A scene that was male dominated, if not actively testosterone laden. So ’Suggestion’, (from the same gig) marked quite a major broadening of his interests. Written (controversially for some) from a women’s perspective, live it was often sung by a female guest vocalist. Here the duties are picked up by DC scene stalwart Amy Pickering.

For their part drummer Brendan Canty (who’d also been in Rites of Spring) and bassist Joe Lally made for an impressive and powerful rhythm section. But, unarguable as that is, it fails to capture their contribution. At the very start, it does seem MacKaye was writing songs then bringing them to the band to learn. But fairly soon compositions went through a group process, often assembled fromkit-partelements all four band members had come up with. (Tracks were always credited to the whole band.)

Which leads onto something else, associated but still more important. In rock music playing well is of marginal importance compared to playing together. Robert Fripp once said “It has nothing to do with self-expression, it has to do with a group mind.” A great band, who achieves that, will move and act as one. Fugazi, as anyone who caught them live could confirm, were a perfect case in point. You’d watch them thinking “I swear these guys must be telepathic or something”.

The art (not just music) that’s most impactful is often the art which achieves seamless integration of form and content, until it’s almost impossible to see the two as separate things. And Fugazi’s style perfectly blended with their stance, self-motivation combined with collective action.

And if any of that sounds like hyperbole, check out the band workout in this version of ’Glue Man’. The final track of the original EP was often used as a set closer as… well, this clip probably gives that away. Someone once sent me this link with the Andre Breton quote “beauty must be convulsive or not at all”. He wasn’t wrong.

The band’s first album ’13 Songs’, (officially a compilation of two earlier EPs), came out in 1989. All the songs linked or referred to above stem from it. Over seven albums the band’s style stretched, with an overall shift away from hardcore towards more of an ‘art rock’ sound. I read a review of one later album (in small type in some badly photocopied fanzine) which wouldn’t even give its title, so outraged were they by it not sounding “punk” any more. As should be needless to say, the most punk thing about Fugazi was that they never bothered about sounding ‘punk’. More importantly, the roots of their developments can already be heard in their first album. They took up a genre already thought standardised if not moribund, and breathed life into it.

MacKaye once said “How about at the end of Fugazi it said, 'they fucking did it their way'? And let's let that be the end.” And by the end the band had played over a thousand gigs around the world, normally all ages, normally for low door prices, always challenging crowd violence when it arose. “Better start living just like you’re talking about”? Pretty damn close.

Quotes and much of the info above from Michael Azerrad’s history of the Eighties American underground ‘Our Band Could Be Your Life’(which has chapters on both Fugazi and Minor Threat) and ‘The Dance of Days’ by Mark Andersen and Mark Jenkins (a history of the Washington DC punk scene, through which the various members of Fugazi thread). Both books recommended. While for essential viewing - ‘Instrument’ is a documentary portrait by Jem Cohen, who used his close relations with the band, to assemble five years’ worth of footage. (‘Glue Man’ above is from the film.)

Saturday 23 March 2019


The Haunt, Brighton, Sat 16th March

None less than Simon Reynolds claimed that by “combining [James] Brown with Iggy [Pop], [James] Chance invented punk funk.” Legend has it that as the Eighties New York punk scene hated disco with a passion, finding it wishy-washy and platitudinous, his primary motive was simply to wind them up.

Though his take was unique. Talking Heads smartly espoused the very image every other dance outfit tried to suppress, the uptight white salary worker trying to loosen his tie for the weekend. Conversely, Chance took funk’s raw punch and married it to punk’s swift upper cut. Against David Byrne’s bespectacled nerd image, Chance collided punk with showbiz - with slicked back hair and Fifties suits. Band names varied, but tended to the classic Person and the Band formulation. But Chance and Byrne did something in common, both were white folks taking on a black influence their own way, without trying to merely imitate it.

Commercially, of course, one of these worked better than the other. The last time David Byrne played Brighton it was the Dome, I couldn’t afford a ticket and was told afterwards he was rubbish. Chance doesn’t even fill the smaller Haunt. His name seems a little more legendary than known. In fact, it was only spying him honking his horn in a recent BBC documentary on Basquiat, that I realised he was still around.

Truth to tell, it’s an oddly uneven set. I found the frequent cover versions just derailed momentum. Even when they were tracks I liked, such as Gil Scott Heron’s ’Home Is Where The Hated Is’. Chance’s voice doesn’t seem up to them, less in terms of singing ability than diction and phrasing. They seemed the sort of maketime venture you’d embark on if you didn’t have enough of your own material to fill a set. Hardly the case with Chance, which made their inclusion all the more puzzling. At such times I was reminded of seeing Ed Sanders playing with the next generation Fugs, an older star relying on a younger backing band to carry him through.

And yet what was especially odd was that when things worked they really worked. It had the involving dance-floor readiness of funk at the very same time it sounded askew and discombobulated. Though Chance is a free jazz fan, there’s only one total wig-out - right near the end. The sound may well be best summed up by the lyrics to his best-known track, ’Contort Yourself’, “Now is the time to lose all control/ Distort your body, twist your soul.”

The guitarist seemed especially gifted, able to come up with inventive breaks and flourishes, at one point just tapping the neck to shake the strings, while always keeping the beat.

Listen, for example, to ‘Do The Splurge’ and try to tell me this is not a fine thing…

James Chance & The Contortions - "Do the splurge" from Agata Urbaniak on Vimeo.

Phoenix Gallery, Brighton, Fri 15th March

Lost Property, the folk who put on the famed Fort Process festival, explain this event thusly: “In the spirit of the creative happenings of the Sixties, Brighton Arts Lab is a new bi-monthly event, serving up performances, spoken word, workshops, film and exhibitions. Each event is themed around different aspects of creativity.”

Jobina Tinnemas’ set seemed more effective than the earlier one at the Radio Three Exposure festival. An engaging character, she worked better in the smaller venue. She’d cheerily explain the workings of her kit and sources of her samples, as if we’d all been invited back to hers. I was less keen on her final piece, however, which brought in overly familiar regular dance beats

Unsoundproofed central venues often suffer from street noise. Yet Anti-Pattern (aka Al Strachan) smartly summoned and incorporated it, by placing a microphone outside the window. Playing in the main corridor, essentially one long window, the street outside became effectively one giant visual to his work. You had to keep telling yourself the sounds weren’t inbuilt.

Ed Briggs started out with some fairly regular organ sounds, which could have passed as a stab at Bach, only to then take off into realms unknown. Two players worked one organ. At one point, as one worked keys and the other pedals, it sounded in no way like a single instrument. The set was only marred by an outbreak mid-way of Industrial Satanist vocals, which seemed straight out of Eighties cliche-dom. (You know the sort of thing. “I will tar your very soul. I will scratch your car door up and down, and not even say I’m sorry.”)

Fettucini Spicer improvised while facing off against one another, rival sonic arsenals set before them, like Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef in some Surreal duel.

Stone Cornelius’ miked-up-knitting piece seemed mere gimmickry to me. But overall, the success rate was high and the night had a good feeling to it. The Phoenix Gallery works well, not only taking it away from regular rock venues but, multi-roomed, able to keep the action going. More seems promised, which we can only hope for.

Jobina Tinnemans…

Jobina Tinnemans - "Varesotto" from Agata Urbaniak on Vimeo.

…Ed Briggs, though here called Black Tiger…

Black Tiger from Agata Urbaniak on Vimeo.

…and last, but not least, Antipattern with cameo street sounds…

Antipattern from Agata Urbaniak on Vimeo.

Saturday 16 March 2019


...and fortunately Orkney is festooned with them! Plus Maes Howe, which is a Neolithic burial chamber rather than a stone circle, but impressive all the same. No villagers chanting "Happy Day" were present at time of visit...

As ever, full set on 500px.

Saturday 9 March 2019


Barbican, London, Sat 2nd March

The Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti… you’ve probably heard his music even if you don’t know the daunting-sounding name. For Stanley Kubrick was wont to use it in his films, principally ‘2001’. And his influence remains strong enough for the Barbican to stage a day-long series of concerts, of which I was only able to catch the evening.

Though he was composing earlier, the Sixties saw him hit on his mature style. He’s quoted in the programme as saying “I have always been looking for an alternative to the 12-note temperament”. And he became interested in what we’d now call World music, not to imitate or incorporate it but to find life outside the conventions of Western harmony. Imagine if visual art had not been confined just to subject matter but to colour, with three agreed shades or green and purple unheard of.

Instead, in the pioneering ’Atmospheres’ (1961), he used ‘sound masses’ where instruments cluster together rather than contribute individual lines, producing ‘adjacent’ sounds to one another which need to be heard in combination. Imagine the difference between ballet, where figures dance in synchronisation but stay separate, to circus acrobats climbing and jumping all over each other. And the piece is exhilarating to listen to to this day, particularly to witness regular classical instruments emitting such unearthly sounds.

His mention of “12-note” refers to then fashionable Serialism. And it’s notable that, quite unlike Serialism, the piece has great dynamics. It just achieves them without the normal standards of musical progression. It’s been described by Harold Kaufman as "a magma of evolving sound”.

The next piece, at least chronologically, was ’Clocks and Clouds’ (1972/3). In a nice anecdote, the programme explains the title comes from a Karl Popper lecture he attended. The then-standard notion of physics was that the sub-atomic world, with its quirky quarks and other weirdly behaving particles, was one thing and the clockwork order of the stars and the planets another. Whereas Popper insisted on a continuity between order and chaos, between clocks and clouds.

I’ve often compared contemporary music of this era to experiencing a weather front. And by extension of Popper’s metaphor, much of the appeal comes from perceiving an order to the music which you can’t quite discern. It’s like receiving an alien radio signal which is compelling for hovering on the periphery of decipherability. The voices in ’Clocks and Clouds’ particularly suggest this. And, possibly by co-incidence, as Ligeti grew up in the Eastern block, he first heard contemporary music by illegally tuning into German radio stations.

The programme also included ’San Francisco Polyphony’ (1973/4) and two much later pieces, after Ligeti had returned from a break from composing. In the intervening time his sonic cosmonaut adventures had fallen more into earth’s orbit. As suggested by the tiles of both ’Piano Concerto’ (1985/8) and ’Violin Concerto’ (1989/93) their return to convention even extends to having a lead instrument. There’s quotes from the man to suggest that, once the unexpected is expected from you, the thing to do becomes the expected.

It’s true that ’Atmospheres’ packs more in it’s nine dense minutes than ’Violin Concerto’ does in twenty-eight. And the concertos might have worked better programmed alongside one another, despite their greater length. But their most interesting feature was their lack of interest in, to use a current political term, ‘centrism’. Instead of making their prridge meh they span the dial all the way from the most regular clocks to the most ungraspable clouds. The programme describes ’Violin Concerto’ as “a labyrinth in which some paths were familiar, some weirdly unfamiliar, and one could never guess when the music might flip from one to another.”

And ’Violin Concerto’ in particular is interesting for a return to folk influences of his younger years. At times the lead violin seems to be echoed in a distorting mirror of the ensemble, where they’d mangle his melodies and hand them back to him. Yet at others they’d provide melodies of their own.

Though Liegti knew Stockhausen, one of the other great contemporary composers of the era, he only very briefly dallied with electronic sounds. In fact, though the music’s quite different, there’s more of a parallel in approach to the American Minimalists. Both saw World music as an escape from an impasse Western composition had mired itself in, and so stuck to ‘standard’ instruments. Both eschewed a hierarchy of instruments and musical progression. Both later decided that their own rules now risked becoming restrictions, and tried to reconcile themselves with the Western tradition.

Depending on your whereabouts and whenabouts, you may be able to hear this concert on the BBC iPlayer.

And you’ll know this…

Friday 1 March 2019


Bowie’s ’Blackstar’… okay, I’m coming a little late to this one. But its very existence is heartening to me. It may have taken someone who hailed from the days from when ‘LPs’ were ‘released’ (instead of ‘items’ being added to ‘feeds’) to rekindle the feeling of an LP being released, but let’s just focus on the fact we got there.

And for me it’s extra sweet. Before the end of the Eighties I’d finally got over my fervent youthful denunciations of his “selling out” and simply stopped thinking about him. Then, slowly and surely, it became the musical equivalent of people’s paths diverging only to come back together later in life. As if he’d become bored of attending award shows and glitzy parties, and decided he was really one of us outsider types after all. Culminating in an album that genuinely bears comparison to his Seventies stuff.

So it seems gloriously old-fashioned the way so many people devoted so much webspace to raking over every utterance and studying the cover for “clues”, even if there was little of quality analysis amid that width. They roved from Norwegian villages to computer code, hoping to overturn so many stones that surely something useful will be stumbled upon. But however absurd the exercise it does hearken back to the days when an album being released was an event, like a monolith being found on the moon, around which the rest of life would have to reorient itself.

And I wonder if, with the title track in particular, it wasn’t preloaded for that response, to both provoke and stymie it. With any piece of music, you’ll hear the sound of the voice before you take in any words, which will inevitably colour the lyrics. And there’s two distinct vocal lines in this song, even if both are provided by Bowie himself. The ceremonial voice which opens the track is like the musical equivalent of a Greek chorus, describing things, setting the scene.

The other voice, sounding more like a regular Bowie vocal, slips between first and second person. But both are concerned with the actions of a character. It behaves like a lead vocal, the ceremonial voice slipping into backing vocals when it’s around. In other words, the first vocal frames the second, both in form (the song being palindromic in structure) and in content. As if the track has its own inbuilt audience. In the video he ‘plays’ the two voices as different characters.

“At the centre of it all” is nothing that radiates but a blackstar, defined as a set of absences (“I’m not a filmstar… a popstar… a marvel star” and so on.) A corpse in a spacesuit. Bowie often demonstrated a Dylanish disdain for pinning songs to ‘meanings’, and here the compound word title brings together ‘centre of attention’ and ‘blank slate’. Maybe his last words to us all were “you try making some sense of this stuff if you want. Me, I have somewhere I need to be…” While at the same time saying, in Lennon’s teasing words, “here’s another clue for you all”. And, to quote him from another track on the same album, “ain’t that just like me?”

So why do that? Bowie had a wry sense of humour. But that’s not the whole of it. Scanning songs for ‘clues’, like they’re puzzle games or detective stories, is clearly not the right way to respond to them. It borders on category error. But in its klunking, gormless way it clutches at something important. Art is not a work email or a note left out for the milkman. It’s not a switchboard for conveying straightforward information. The artist only launches the artwork, lets it loose in the world. From thereon in, it’s up to you, the listener, to make your own sense of it.