Saturday 30 October 2021


Open here for sonic reduction

Down these dark streets a band must go… Punk was born in the big, bad cities of America’s east cost. The more those urban centres fell apart, the more weeds flowered in the cracks.

This was when Punk was still underground, not yet packaged or commodified. So it wasn’t a style you kept to, but a totemic term for all the freaks, losers and outsiders to gather under. As Patti Smith said: “To me, punk rock is freedom”.

(The illo’s the Velvet Underground against a magnificently shabby New York backdrop. You probably already guessed that…)

Suicide: Ghost Rider
Richard Hell: Blank Generation
New York Dolls: Personality Crisis
The Modern Lovers: She Cracked
Dead Boys: Sonic Reducer
Ramones: Blitzkrieg Bop
Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers: One Track Mind
MC5: Kick Out the Jams
Television: Foxhole
The Stooges: I Need Somebody
The Cramps: Strychnine
The Velvet Underground: The Black Angel’s Death Song
Glenn Branca: Structure
Theoretical Girls: Computer Dating
Ut: Confidential
Mars: Helen Forsdale
UI: Out
James Chance & the Contortions: Contort Yourself
Pere Ubu: Laughing
Talking Heads: Memories Can’t Wait
Patti Smith: Free Money

Coming soon!
What Punk did next…

Saturday 16 October 2021


De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill, Thurs 14th Oct

“Scotland my dreaming head” sings main main Mike Scott, during a rare live outing for ‘Islandman’. And this particular Scotsman has indeed been our dreaming head these past forty years. Partly because he’s just kept a-dreamin’ all that time.

For some reason, only when they play ‘Ladbroke Grove Symphony’ (note: not an actual symphony) it hits me that these past few years reflection has crept into his repertoire. Though even here the point of the song seems to lie in the ending, his failed attempt to move back and re-connect with the area. (“I was just in the way/ I was way out of time.”) Life has to be lived in forward gear.

Unusually for most longstanding bands, but usually for the Waterboys, the two-hour-plus set isn’t all your favourite songs from back in the day sprinkled with a few new numbers, but instead drawn from about every era of their long career. However, there’s surprisingly little of the hard funk that’s populated recent releases. And and the last album, ‘Good Luck, Seeker’ gets only two tracks by my counting. Perhaps because it’s now over a year old, and a whole new release is already planned for the Spring.

And, compared with the last time they trod the De La Warr stage, there’s a surprisingly high number of tracks from the classic ‘This is The Sea’. (Eulogised by some sycophant here.) Though the tracks have often been transformed over the intervening years of playing. The set opens with the now-established new version of ‘Don’t Bang The Drum’, played by a sparse but expansive trio, like looking over a mist-covered landscape visible via only a few peaks. But it’s the Big Music sound, the thing which for most he still embodies, which is consigned to the past. 'This Is the Sea' itself is closer to a singer-songwriter number. Though the state-of-the-nation ‘Old England’ only needs a few lyrical updates to stay pertinent.

Like Patti Smith, in many ways his musical mentor, Scott brought a more literary sensibility to rock ’n’ roll. But like Patti Smith… possibly more than Patti Smith, he’s stayed wedded to the primal power of rock ’n’ roll as a transformative force, in which songs have special healing powers. Which might seem harder to hold to in recent decades. Yet, against all the odds, he makes that work.

Brother Paul, by now a semi-permanent member, has his own on-stage tribute song which he gets to play along with - ‘Nashville Tennessee’. During which Scott goads and encourages him into more and more flamboyantly frenzied keyboard solos.

So the band will happily indulge the stage theatrics of rock ’n’ roll, but then switch in a second to the heady punch of something like ‘In My Time On Earth’. Which is the only way to play rock ’n’ roll, to realise that one side of the coin cannot exist without the other, that it must always be heartfelt cry and absurd showmanship soldered together.

As if further proof was needed there’s life in the old band yet, my favourite track of the night may well have been new number ‘My Wanderings In the Weary Land’. (In which Scott recites the prose sleeve notes he wrote for the earlier often-overlooked ‘A Rock In the Weary Land’, for those who like to know that sort of thing…)

Saturday 9 October 2021


“The one rock star that makes me know I’m shit is Polly Harvey. I’m nothing next to the purity that she experiences.”
- Courtney Love

”You Showed Me Just What I Could Do”

Polly Jean Harvey’s fifth album, ’Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea’ (2000) features her singing “is this love, is this love that I’m feeling?” like trying to hit on a name for some unfamiliar taste. It was described by Caroline Sullivan as her “wild-love-in-New York record… that bubble[s] over with adoration for a significant other, with the city as its backdrop.”

All of which made for a contrast to the earlier darker, more bluesy mood, particularly on her first two albums. Back then weightier tracks seemed to thicken the air around them, as characters entangled themselves in their own follies and desires. Tracks were called things like ’Water, ‘Hair’, ‘Legs’, ‘Snake’ and ’Man-Size’. Imagery was mostly bodily, nature-based or elemental. (’Kamikaze’ is perhaps the only number here which kept up the old ways. Listen for example to her high-register voice on the chorus.) Yet she broke up her original trio to embark on exploits new.

We’ve grown so used to love songs we tend to tune out the words as soon as we glean that’s what’s going on. They’re like politicians promising prosperity. Yet despite all the dead weight of overspent cliches, sometimes a record comes along which genuinely seems to bottle the feeling, the euphoria, the sense of daily life transformed into something thrilling. To cite the old Situationist saying: “Being in love means really wanting to live in a different world.”

There’s a tradition more often found in Latin arts (for example in the films ’Les Amants Dans Pont Neuf’ (1991) and ’Betty Blue’) (1986) where the lovers are counterposed to society. They just want to be together but the demands, possibly the very presence, of others inevitably insinuates its way between them. In this tradition the lovers’ desire to be together is tantamount to their fusing into one.

“When we walked through
“Little Italy
“I saw my reflection
“Come right off your face”

And isn’t the city the perfect backdrop to a love affair? A burst of endless energy passing around and through you, streets to discover just as you discover each other.

Remember how being out on the town would be demonstrated by old films? With a whirling montage of bright neon lights, careering traffic, dancing girls and spouting champagne? Tracks such as ’Good Fortune’ feel like those sequences looked, erupting in a euphoric rush. And rock music itself seems to belong with the city, as much as it does with electricity.

So the album’s shot through with parallels between big and small, between the vast and the immediate. “Do you remember the first kiss?/ Stars shooting across the sky.”

And Harvey pointedly sings “from England to America”. British artists have long had a tradition of the American album, the hit-and-rush of being plunged into the States on their first tour. Except it meant something simultaneously narrower and broader than that suggests. The American album was often really the New York album. And sure enough all those landmarks show up here, Brooklyn, Little Italy, the Empire State Building.

But at the same time it was the city album, the reaction to metropolitan life. Because even if they existed elsewhere New York was still the ur-city, the city of cities. (For later generations this may well become somewhere in China.) And notably this album titles itself not after New York but the more archetypal “the City.” (Harvey herself said that many songs were written during a long stay in New York, but it shouldn’t be seen as her New York album.)

Like rock music cities can feel liberating. You can throw off the weight of custom, of social expectation, to finally become yourself. Partly, their mass nature offers anonymity. But it’s a feeling which gets fused with the geography of a city, boulevards to stride along, rooftops to scale and look down from. That’s a feeling caught in art and literature aplenty. So the open streets of the city enables the affair, letting the lovers run down them past a sea of strangers. (“Threw my bad fortune/ Off the top of/ A tall building.”) It’s cities which have freeways, after all. 

”Just Give Me Something I Can Believe” 

Exhilarating, but perhaps not sufficient. For an album with so many love songs, only one’s a duet. (‘The Place We’re In’.) And both the album cover and video for ‘Good Fortune’ show her amid the whirlygig of a night out on the town, but adventuring alone.

Or maybe not? What if in that opening quote Sullivan had it right, but wrongside-up? What if the city’s not background but foreground?

You sometimes entertain theories about art not because you want them to be right, for the internet to unite in agreement with you, but because you just want them to work for you - and only in that moment. Even terms like ‘headcannon’ are too strong to describe this, for you need to be free to dump your own theory as soon as it stops working for you, and move on to entertain something else - even if it formally contradicts. It’s not about them being right, but useful.

It’s like placing a filter over a photo. It allows you to see that photo in a certain way, it brings out some elements and diminishes others. And you can take it away again when you’re finished with it.

And as one such theory, what if the love affair doesn’t just take place within the City but with it? The never-named lover is a personalisation of the place, its liberating force jolting through you like the sensation of being in love. ’You Said Something’ keeps coming back to that “something” you said (without ever saying it, naturally enough). What if it isn’t said before that Manhattan view but by it - by the flashing lights, the colours and the five bridges. All of that stretching vista seen as a message just for you. Me-into-you morphs into me-into-City.

Harvey has been dismissive of the notion her music should be taken as displaced autobiography, and understandably so. Too many confuse the impetus of a song with its meaning. But it’s perhaps notable that she was brought up in the scarcely-more-rural location of a Dorset farmhouse. (While I may love the album so much having grown up in a small town. As a child my intention was to move to America, and change my name to something more befitting this new land. At the time Fred seemed a good choice. And naturally by America I meant New York.)

”When You Got Lost Into the City”

On release, most concentrated on the album’s bright and striking new tone. But if this is about a love story with the city its a torrid and tempestuous affair, not one solely spent watching sunsets. Just like getting lost in the city, it has another face. Which is, to quote another lyric, “sharp as knives”.

It opens, after all with declamatory guitar and the lines “Look out ahead/ See danger come/ I want a pistol/ I want a gun”. And more knives and guns ensue than are found in your normal love story. Because the overpowering city cannot but cast its shadow over you, dominating you and rendering you anonymous. From the Bible via Brecht and punk (all three lyrical or musical influences) comes the longstanding tradition of the City as Babylon, the centre of all that’s corrupt and oppressive. And this shadow spreads over numbers like (the near-Brechtian titled) ’The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore’. (“Too many people out of love”).

The tracks here often sound just as energised but by a different kind of energy, one not bestowed upon you but generated by necessity. The link’s reversed, the City doesn’t enable you but comes down upon you. It becomes a battlefield, its “universal laws” set against your “inner charm”. You’re in a constant state of agitation, if not outright war, just to keep hold of your own self. (“This world’s crazy/ Give me the gun”). The line “Little people at the amusement park” always reminds me of Harry Lime’s infamous cuckoo clock speech in ’The Third Man’, delivered looking down at human dots from a Ferris wheel.

In fact it comes to feel so Babylonian it’s inherently apocalyptic, as if set somewhere so mighty the only possible next step will be a fall. Though written long before the terrorist attacks on New York on September 11th, it now seems almost impossible not to hear the album in that context.

"Sometimes it rains so hard…
“And in my heart
“Feels like the end of the world”

But, and should there be any regular readers they’ll doubtless be ahead of me here, the magic happens when these misfitting pieces are put together regardless. There’s no absolute division between the themes, more the feeling that as two sides of the same coin one bleeds into the other. The album starts with ’Big Exit’, running into ’Good Fortune’. The in-your-eyes lovers morph before your eyes into the folk staple of the outlaw couple, living not just outside of but against society.

Because when seen from a distance, the City isn’t just where the good stuff happens, or even the bad stuff. It’s where the stuff happens, while the small-town backwater you inhabit is a featureless, event-free purgatory.

”One Day There’ll be a Place For Us”

And there’s one other aspect to the album, which I suspect is more (if not entirely) personal to me…

Part and parcel of my leaving that afore-mentioned small town was my ability to enmesh myself in political activism. Which I was soon pursuing with the fervour of a love affair; the exhilarating feeling of being transformed and being able to transform, the desire to be everywhere at once, the belief you could punch your way out of consensus reality into a better one by force of will alone. You told yourself everything was heading towards a mighty conflagration, during which the future would be hammered out.

It was heady stuff, and inevitably it made you headstrong. It came with a tendency to fetishise conflict beyond any context, and a romanticisation of crime as some inherently Robin Hood affair. We indulged all that, in the words of the song, “until nothing was enough/ Until my middle name was excess.”

This being Britain, none of us actually had guns. Thankfully, as in our befuddled hands they’d have less likely to shot down the lackeys of the klepto-imperialist hegemonic order, and more likely taken our own toes out. But “this world’s crazy, give me the gun”, that sentiment captures how it all felt.

Remember the Funkadelic line “freedom is free of the need to be free”? We were the very opposite, enslaved to the need to be free, all-consumed by the burning desire to keep activism ever-aflame lest it splutter and all be lost. Like the song says “we just kind of lost our way/ But we were trying to be free.” 

Set against the slow, measured piano and virtually sprechgesang vocals are those agitated cymbals. It sounds like dry kindling, one of those tracks that smoulders so much it constantly threatens to self-ignite. But it sets expectations to defy them, breaking into a more serene chorus, and the promise “one day… we’ll take life as it comes”.

Harvey proved keen to keep her sound moving. She took to pinning up a sign in the studio asking ‘Too PJH?’, a warning against repeating herself. And this was really the album that cemented all that, the freeway that always took you somewhere new.

Saturday 2 October 2021


Previous part here

Gone To the Devil

Like any band, Black Sabbath were first and foremost the combination of their individual characters, granted a generous dose of serendipity. Which we’ve hopefully seen by now. But there’s a less immediate element, the milieu of their times. Fish need the right tide to swim with. And to get that we need to look at three things…

Let’s start out with the elephant in the room, which in this case is more a horned, pointy-bearded bloke. Of course, a career-launching song which name-checked Satan soon proved to be smoking from a poisoned chillum. On top of the critical opprobrium which met their music, they soon found themselves accused of following the guy they wrote about.

Originally, this may well have been part of the plan. Steve Ignorant once said of ‘So What (in many ways as much Crass’s inaugural track as ‘Black Sabbath’) “I wrote [it] to see if there’d be a bolt of lightning… in a funny way, it was daring.” And it’s easy to imagine ’Black Sabbath’ being written on such a dare, out of the devilish delight a young mind takes from dwelling on dark things. After all, that first album was pointedly released on Friday 13th.

Yet quoting the line about Satan out of context is like taking the Tempter’s speech to John the Baptist, then claiming the Bible to be the devil’s work. After all, Osborne responds to Satan’s presence by saying (and I quote) “Oh no! Please, God help me!”

With the already-seen ’NIB’ the one exception, their songs followed orthodox theology so closely it would make much more sense to call them a Christian band. ’War Pigs’ for example brings on the day of judgement, where God punishes the wrong-doers. It’s true that the lyrics reverse things around, with the supposedly socially respectable judged, the once-mighty Generals reduced to begging God for forgiveness.

Butler has said (not unreasonably): "Warmongers. That's who the real Satanists are, all these people who are running the banks and the world and trying to get the working class to fight the wars for them.” But then Christianity can claim a history of such things.

Butler confirmed his interest in this imagery stemmed partly from being “raised Catholic”. The band all wore crucifixes not out of some ironic gesture but because they’d been given them by Osborne’s father, as good luck charms.

And as they went on they became still more assertive about this. Their third album (1971’s ’Master of Reality’), often sounds like a cross between goads and ripostes in their insistence upon a belief in “God above.” “Well I have seen the truth, yes I've seen the light and I've changed my ways/ And I'll be prepared when you're lonely and scared at the end of our days”. (Though that still didn’t stop them titling their 1976 compilation the Robert Johnson-inspired ’We Sold Our Soul For Rock’n’Roll’.)

Because, somewhat bizarrely, the Satan tag had been affixed to them via fan and foe alike. The band’s cover interview in the catchily titled ’Disc And Music Echo’ (Oct.1970) went under the now infamous header ’Fans We Don’t Want’, so sick had they become of the association. Fans would make the sign of the devil to Osborne, thinking this would make them look cool, but the habit only irked him.

True, bands which came later did go for the gormless horned-hands gesture, just as bands who came after the Sex Pistols affected the bozo nihilism. But no-one should be held responsible for the stupidity of others.

Whereas another track off the album, ’Sweet Leaf’, seems a more spontaneous expression of where the band were at. And it’s not just a love song to a joint, it’s one where the expression gets to religious levels in and of itself. (“You gave to me a new belief/ And soon the world will love you, sweet leaf.”)

The band had come out of the hippie era. They were Jesus freaks first, even if they were Jesus lover second. ’War Pigs’ is that hippie stand-by, an anti-war number, soon followed by the ban-the-bomb ’Electric Funeral.’ And the power of love? Already covered.

Except there’s two twists to this. First, with a first album released in 1970, they were well-placed to witness the Age of Aquarius’ non-arrival. By that point it was becoming obvious to all but the most terminally stoned that playing bongo drums in the park was not proving an effective means to oppose the military-industrial complex. The same year saw the release of ’Plastic Ono Band’, with Lennon announcing “the dream is over”.

But more, those who dream most sweetly are those who sleep in the softest beds. The band all had working class backgrounds, born to be factory fodder, counter to a hippie culture which primarily came from the indolence of privilege.

Osborne would recall: "It was me and five kids living in a two bedroom house. My father worked nights, my mother worked days, we had no money, we never had a car, we very rarely went on holiday ... And suddenly, you know, we hear about 'If you're going to San Francisco be sure to wear a flower in your hair'. And we're thinking, (contemptuously) "...What's all this flower shit? I've got no shoes on my feet.”

As one telling example, in Country Joe and the Fish’s ’I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin'-to-Die Rag’ (1967) it’s the parents who send their sons to war. In ’War Pigs’ its generals who sacrifice the poor. And those getting shipped off to Vietnam weren’t the college kids of Berkley, they were the construction workers of Cleveland - with who the band had a stronger affinity.

And in the end, their sound… the thing they’re most famous for… is an expression of all this. Darker music with darker themes simply reflected darker times from those well-placed to see the tunnel at the end of the light. Butler recalled “you could see there was a lot of things going wrong in the world and no-one was talking about it.”

Yet it’s as important to say that if Sabbath took an almost perverse glee in decrying hippy optimism, they never actually broke from the bedrock of those values. The Man was still out to get you. Long hair was still good, short hair bad. In short, they bore the same love/hate relationship to hippie ideology as Dark Romanticism had to Romanticism. (Bowie, another significant figure of the early Seventies, had pretty much the same relationship to hippiness.)

And if hippies had stuck it to The Man, then Satan was perhaps the perfect father figure. As Mark Fisher said of the era:

“The Protest impulse of the 60s posited a Malevolent Father, the harbinger of a Reality Principle that (supposedly) cruelly and arbitrarily denies the 'right' to total enjoyment. This Father has unlimited access to resources, but he selfishly - and senselessly - hoards them... 

“It goes without saying that the psychological origins of this imagery lie in the earliest phases of infancy. The hippies' bucolic imagery and 'dirty Protest' - filth as a rejection of adult grooming - both originate in the 'unlimited demands' of the infant. A consequence of the infant's belief in the Father's omnipotence is the conviction that all suffering could be eliminated if only the Father wished it.”

(Yes, as said earlier, at the same time he could represent the egotistical self. Symbols are slippery things.)

But to complete our trinity let’s go back to that Butler quote, and this time take it in full: “I was raised Catholic, so I totally believed in the Devil”. True, the physical existence of the Devil is more part of Catholic doctrine than Protestant. But that last word still sounds like something of a switch.

And the era often felt just like that. Though the film they named themselves after dated back to 1963 their day saw many Satan-centred horror films - among them ’Rosemary’s Baby’ (1968), ’The Exorcist’ (1973), ’The Omen’ (1976), ’To The Devil a Daughter’ (also 1976) - you wonder if he’d got himself a new agent. Butler’s quote is reminiscent of the title character’s line in ’Rosemary’s Baby’ (1968): “I was brought up a Catholic... now, I don't know.” It’s a film which has little to no mention of God, yet is saturated by his antagonist. While in music Sabbath’s contemporaries King Crimson (formed in the same year) were named after one of the many terms for the Devil.

And this rise of Satan as movie star, once too ‘hot’ a figure for mere entertainment, went alongside the slow decline of the Church as an institution. Social upheavals led people to demand stronger meat from their movies, as a way of working through their anxieties in a newly uncertain world. It was the clash of these opposites that threw up the Devil to exemplify them. ’The Exorcist’ sums up this clash with a torn protagonist who is half priest half psychiatrist.

It became routine for horror films to be set not at a safe distance but in the modern, everyday world. Even Hammer abandoning their patented Victoriana with ’Dracula AD 1972’. (You can guess when that one was made.) Things unthinkable only a few years before became almost routine. Redemptive endings were no longer insisted on and the forces of darkness could even win, as if the world really had gone to the devil.

Sabbath instinctively tapped into that feeling through being part of it, having been brought up with a Christian moralism they now saw as falling into decline. Their dirge-like music worked as a soundtrack to the era, as if we were all transfixed by some strange new figure no-one could comprehend. But lyrically they were forever torn between the sense of falling into the blackness, of giving in to the beckoning devil and a residual hope that the kids might somehow win out. Their music became a battleground between Romanticism and Dark Romanticism. “Soundtrack to an era” might seem a cliche. But really, there’s no better term.