Saturday 27 May 2023


(Top 50 Albums)

“Sewing The Seeds Of Discontent..”

It begins with bass…

Because where else? Jah Wobble’s bass was a vital ingredient of PiL’s sound. All too often in rock music, bass is really there just as a kind of stock, to thicken the sound. Whereas his playing is not at all secondary. It’s rich, full, laying out the ground everyone else moves on.

Then, as Simon Reynolds put it, “because Wobble’s bass carried the melody, Keith Levene’s guitar was given license to freak out.” Not that it needed much encouraging.

If it’s close to conventional guitar at all, it’s what you’ll hear right at the end of guitar solos, when the player’s finished running up and down the fretboard and just plays washes and tones. Usually a signal the solo’s about to end. Here it’s kept up for the whole track. It puts music through the shredder, then throws up those shreds in waves. Andy Bell compared it to “ground-up diamonds fired at you through a high pressure hose.”

It’s also similar to the ‘effects’ role rock music often assigns synths. Except of course they aren’t thought of as a lead instrument any more than the bass. Their role to provide peripheral ‘sound effects’, the musical equivalent of marginalia. Here they’re front and centre. And it’s surely not coincidental that Levene swapped guitar for synth on some tracks, most unmissably with ’Careering’.

But Wobble’s bass never quite carried the melody as much as a guitar would. Plus, both Levene’s guitar and Lydon’s vocals are as high in register as the bass is low, creating a sense of space, an open-ness. Like artists incorporate white space into their designs, PiL left space in sound. (Remarkably, we can now hear the ‘fat’ as well as the ‘lean’ version of these tracks, after Wobble released ’Metal Box In Dub’ in ’21. Live version reviewed here.) The result is one of the best Post-Punk albums. But it’s also one of the most Post-Punk albums, epitomising the sound. Alongside ’154’ (released the same year), and ’Closer’ (released the next).

As some of you may have already heard, Lydon had been the frontman of the Sex Pistols. And Levene was a founder of the Clash (if only briefly a member). Only Wobble had been uninterested in Punk, which he dismissed as “bad rock & roll”. How did they get from there to here? ’Metal Box’ let’s not forget, came out in 1979, a mere two years from ’Never Mind The Bollocks’. 

The answer’s given by the two things Lydon did on leaving the Pistols. He called Can to persuade them that he should be their new singer, only to find they’d just split up. And he travelled to Jamaica, to scout out Reggae acts for Virgin. And Krautrock and Dub were to play a major role. If you’re looking for influences, those aren’t bad choices. They’d arguably been the two most innovative forms of music from the previous ten years.

Except of course influences should never be treated as ingredients, the recipe doesn’t make the chef. And the Pistols had already been the band who launched a thousand clueless copycats, proof that what influences mostly give you is something to live up to. Levene has said “I respected my influences enough never to imitate them.”

Reynolds again: “PiL assimilated both the dread feel of roots reggae and the dub aesthetic of subtraction (stripping out instruments, using empty space), without ever resorting to the obviously dubby production effects like reverb and echo.”

And it wasn’t just the effects. Reggae was then popular associated with sunshine and good times. (Even if that wasn’t a description Roots fans were likely to go along with.) PiL turned that influence into something bleakly British, the sound of rain-sodden streets on wet weekdays.

’Metal Box’, you maybe able to guess the format. Which had proved expensive so it was soon repackaged as ’Second Edition’, a more regular double LP. In a sleeve which reproduced ’Metal Box’s greyness, with distorted photos of the band that look like Munch if he’d gone in for making fairground mirrors.

Opening track ’Albatross’ was effectively made up on the spot. And as Lydon has since said: "Many people don't understand that [the album] was improvisation… what we had to do was quite literally sneak into studios when bands had gone home for the night.” And the album was recorded guerilla-style, in multiple studios.

Though some have gone on to overstate this. The very next track, ’Memories’, not only benefits from multi-tracking, it’s clearly two different mixes (if not versions) spliced together. (With characteristically little effort made to hide the join.) Overall, extemporised may be a better term. Tracks were thrown together in the studio in double-quick time, with zero preparation. But the studio was then often used extensively, to work on what they had.

For all the talk of Can the album shows as much a musical debt to another Krautrock outfit, the duo Neu!, who had worked precisely this way. And Krautrock in general disdained the traditional way of recording, diligently transcribing the songs, practising until you were drilled in them, then going into the studio to get the finished product on tape. The Fall’s ‘Slates’ EP (1981) was mostly put together the same rapid-fire way.

Why do such a thing to yourself? Well, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that PiL were the least hardworking band in showbiz. Last minute was normally considered too early a time for them to take on something. A Virgin exec described them as as “a well-oiled machine that burns money and generates pot smoke and excuses.” (There’s an irony to their being so Can influenced. Can almost never stopped playing while PiL almost never started.) But it wasn’t just that.

Post-Punk was in its way cerebral. Both PiL and the Fall were named after books. But it also prized instinct. As soon as you start to think, you’re more likely to think something already thought. You needed devices to bypass rational processes and conscious thought. And you’re not going to think if you don’t give yourself enough time to.

Levene has said: “The idea was to break through conditioning, take yourself out of one channel, and into another space.” And Wobble: “Everybody these days thinks ‘This must be rational’. You’ll find music that’s not really on a rational level will worry people and produce extreme reactions.”

But enforced spontaneity was one means among many. Levene has also said: “I just had an ear for what was wrong. So if I … made a mistake or did something that wasn't in key, I was open-minded enough to listen to it again.” (Of course these are both classic devices used by Surrealist artists.)

On the late, lamented radio show ’Mixing It’, Wobble cited ’Poptones’ as the best PiL track. He was right. And in fact it’s also the best indication of what they were doing… As Head Heritage point out, “Lydon free-associates in clusters of words.” Listen a while and you’ll notice he dances round a few phrases, repeating them in ever-shifting combinations. Which is pretty much what Levene’s guitar does with notes.

Rather than hold their place in the mix, maintain formation, the two dance around one another, ever in flux. Motion is ceaseless, but none of it is forward motion. These aren’t songs in the traditional sense, moving between verses and choruses via pre-built bridges, they’re more like installation pieces you visit and soak up.

Wobble described this as “modal. You have a home key and you modulate around and then you come back to it… It isn’t just repetition… it’s a block of sound going on.” Much like Can the sound is audaciously stripped-down and intricate at one and the same time.

Not that many noticed back then. With bands, attention inevitably falls on their front-man. Exacerbated in this case by Lydon being the only face in a band then made up of unknowns. But, at least at this point, he was insistent they should be seen very much as a group. “In this band we are all equal. No Rod Stewarts. We all do equal amounts of work, we all produce equally, write songs and collect the money equally.”

The front cover of ’First Issue’ had been a beaming Lydon. But ’Second Edition’ featured Levene, then for ’Flowers Of Romance’ Jeanette Lee. (Theoretically a band member, though no-one seems sure what she was supposed to do.) And while interviews of the time were normally acrimonious, in perhaps the most confrontational one of all, part of Lydon’s ire is down to the show not wanting to interview the whole band. (Though unsurprisingly he still dominates events, with Levene popping off for a beer.)

Given all this, it’s bizarre how the band had a rotating drum stool throughout this time. Three different drummer play on the album (David Humphrey, Richard Dudanski, Martin Akins), while both Levene and Wobble stepped in at points. Others were roped in too, but not as far as recording. It’s something that should really ruin an album, especially one essentially about the interplay of the musicians, and it’s remarkable that it doesn’t.

“I Can’t Forget The Impression You Left”

Bur what, I hear you ask, about the words? Which had after all been Lydon’s main contribution to the Pistols. Here they were as extemporised as anything else, which straight away gave them a different, more stream-of-consciousness nature.

Lydon was previously known for accusatory lyrics, jeering diatribes, a kind of urchin version of Wilde. He sang ‘you’ songs, pointed outwards (perhaps best encapsulated in the line “the problem is you”). But he gives this up for ‘I’ songs, turned inwards (“All in your mind/ Where it all began”). They have quite a stream-of-consciousness character, perhaps inevitably with their being thought up so quickly. They feel confessional, yet cryptic and elusive at the very same time.

And his singing style changed as much as the music, less to taunt a target and more as though no-one is listening. And in this process spleen gives way to angst. Lydon later said: “PiL is more experimental but also truer and honest.”

Lydon drew the cover for the single ’Death Disco’, “Public Image Limited” added as if the artist’s signature. (Though the only album sleeve to see one of his drawings was the live follow-up, ’Paris Au Printemps’.) Add all these things together and we have an Expressionist style, described by no less than the Tate gallery as “art in which the image of reality is distorted in order to make it expressive of the artist’s inner feelings or ideas.”

And in fact it was ’Death Disco’/‘Swan Lake’ (depending on whether you were listening to the single or album version) where this reached his apogee. Writing a song about his mother dying must have seemed about the most unlikely thing for the ex-singer of the Pistols to do, let alone have it set to an abrasive guitar line borrowed from Tchaikovsky.

But this transition had been part-disguised. The first album had kicked off with a very much first-person song, ’Theme’. While the single ’Public Image’ gets both ‘you’ and ‘I’ into it. Yet ’Low Life’ and ’Attack’ are about as accusatory as a song can get. But who to? It was widely assumed at the time ex-manager Malcom McLaren was the target, with who Lydon was then in legal as well as personal dispute. Though Lydon himself has said before now it was the rest of the Pistols.

Yet when I first heard that first album, my first thought was that all those second-person accusations protested too much, and were pretty clearly a displaced form of self-criticism. “You fell in love with your ego/ it did not fit in the plan.” Reminding you of anyone? Besides, bitter ex energy for the dodgy manager and former band-mates? Can’t these songs be about something more interesting than that?

In fact it’s the social commentary lyrics which can now seem the weakest, which tend to a kind of O-Level social realism. (“It’s not important/Not worth a mention in the Guardian.”)

Let’s swing back to ’Albatross’. What is the title thing Lydon’s so keen to rid himself of? I think he’s describing what he’s doing, right there and then. The opening line is “slow motion’, and indeed it’s pretty at odds with punk’s paciness. Lines like “I know you very well/ You are unbearable” might refer to Punk music, which he’d grown keen to announce was now moribund. 

But that’s too narrow really. Post-Punk was not just anti-Punk but anti-rockist, insisting Rock music’s claims to be something wild, free and outside of social conventions were absurd, that it had long since degenerated to a set of stale gestures to sell stadium tickets. Same as the old boss.

In interview at the time, Lydon would vent his hostility to… well, to most things, but Rock was a common target. (And Levene too, if he ever got a word in.) “It’s dead, it’s history… it’s too limited, too much like a structure, a church.” Or an albatross, maybe. (I saw Lydon’s more recently reformed PiL, the one without Wobble or Levene, twice. And each set started with a version of ’Albatross’, suggesting to him it remained that statement of intent.)

When Life Gives You Lightning

This self-enforced spontaneity business, we looked at the pluses. But are there pitfalls? Of course there are! It relies on you escaping your own trap unscathed, scoring a surprise six. The band’s debut had been intermittently brilliant but doubtlessly flawed. And the follow up to this, ’Flowers Of Romance', was to be even more uneven. (It boldly set sail without Wobble’s anchoring bass, but met headwinds.) There’ll be few fans of original era PiL who don’t consider this their best release.

Which helps solve a riddle. The previous album had finished with a near-eight-minute track to bring it up to the minimum length that Virgin would release, brazenly admitted on the track itself. The next one was even shorter. Why did such idlers release a double album between them?

It must have been realised, at least instinctively, that this was the time it was coming together, that it was now or never. When lightning keeps striking, make lightningade. (Or however that saying goes.) Wobble’s famously described the band as “three emotional cripples on three different drugs”, which was never going to lead to stability. Notably, none of the four album sleeves (counting the live ’Paris Au Printemps’) features a photo of the band together, they’re always shot separately a la ’White Album’.

And the now best-known photo of the band is the one taken at Lydon’s home, where each stares out obliviously into his own section of space. After this album, Wobble was soon out the band. (With the usual contradictory tales about whether he was fired or quit.) The three never recorded together again.

Is it a perfect release? Well, we are talking about possibly the most perverse group of individuals ever known, so probably not. As the album moves into its second disc, it either loses its original focus or casts its next wider, as is your preference. 

’Chant’ with its ceaseless refrain “love war feel hate”, like a version of Hate Week from ’Nineteen Eighty-Four’, with Lydon channelling his inner Davros. (The device of constantly repeating a mantra phrase until it becomes almost a riff is another Krautrock motif, as found on Faust’s ’J’ai Mal Au Dents.’) If ’Poptones’ sounded sinister, this verges on the infernal. Though perhaps at variance to other tracks, it was a favourite for live sets and even TV appearances.

Let’s compare it to Genesis. No, really! ’The Knife’ had been about a diabolic tempter, with the singer duplicating his dark charisma on stage. Which might seem a role ready-made for Lydon. But ’Chant’ is more about the dehumanising apparatus of broadcast, the tannoy’s distorting effect on the human voice, like a power object that only leads to evil. (Lydon talked a lot at the time about disliking the divide between performer and audience of the gig setting. Though his attempts to break it down tended to be handing out the mike while having a fag.)

In ’Rip It Up And Start Again’, Simon Reynolds charts the start of Post-Punk as Lydon leaving the Pistols, then adds the similar act of Howard Devoto quitting the Buzzcocks to form Magazine. And notably Devoto showed a similar disdain for the herd mentality in ’Shot By Both Sides.’

’The Suit’ is the one track where the trademark sneer returns, with “it is your nature” never used more a put-down. Though it’s more dismissive than adversarial, an understated seethe, telling its subject they’re not even worth getting worked up about. It’s not one of the album’s best tracks, but holds its place.

The two instrumental tracks, ’Socialist’ and ’Radio 4’, seem the biggest outliers, surely done on days Lydon didn’t show up. The rapid-tempo ’Socialist’ can’t help but recall the speeded-up tracks Neu! used to fill out their second album. While ’Radio 4’ is all Levine. However, when you get used to the fact they sound nothing like the rest of the album, they’re pretty good in themselves. And segueing the calming ’Radio 4’ after the frenzied ’Chant’ is something of a demented masterstroke. (On the original release with no track break between them.)

More of a problem… for some reason, they used only the instrumental version of ’Another’, re-titled ’Graveyard’. The complete version was to be found on the flip side of ’Memories’. Had it been on the album, it would have been one of the stand-out tracks.

But it’s ’Bad Baby’ which is the weak link. Mostly, the band sound like a bunch of boho artistes scoffing at your workaday notion of rehearsal, and somehow getting away with it. While this just sounds un-rehearsed, at one point Lydon even calling out timing instructions. Though the hackneyed lyrics also hold it back.

’Home Is Where The Heart Is’, a significantly better track, was for some reason abandoned and later completed for the B-side of the ‘Flowers Of Romance’ single. (With the bass line of the then-departed Wobble looped.) Contrary to the Simon Reynolds quote above, it does use some of the more classically dubby effects, so imitating its influences may be why it was originally dropped.

It’s sometimes asked why Virgin were so tolerant of Lydon’s fire-extinguisher-squirting antics. They probably figured that something would occur to him before long, being anti-commercial doesn’t really make you much money. If that was their gamble, it certainly paid off. After the relative flop of ’Flowers’, a more commercial direction was decided on. Though a less commercial direction might have proved challenging.

It shouldn’t be overlooked that originally, Levene was on board with this. He was on board with the move to America, the universally recognised sign of embracing dollars. Yet ere long Lydon had booted him from the band he co-founded, and embarked on a tour of Japan backed by session musicians. It was the first in a bewildering series of volte-faces, between fortune hunting antics and genuinely creative pursuits, that’s lasted till this day.

And yet reforming the Sex Pistols was a blatant cash-grab, while reforming PiL was an equally obvious signal he wanted to make good music again. (I saw that version of PiL and said afterwards “Lydon seems constantly able to surprise you, sometimes even pleasantly.”) Then one day he became a Trump cheerleader in the confused belied that this was being ‘edgy’ and ‘current’, and proved his well of surprise had dried up after all.

Wobble, who’d left partly to get away from the anti-work ethic, was unsurprisingly the most productive, even given a long break spent on on the non-musical Underground. He embarked on a series of solo releases and collaborations, wide-ranging in style but normally creatively successful - even if his blacked-out teeth never graced ’Top of The Pops’ again.

After seeing him one time, I said: “As the Eighties and Nineties wore on his love of dub, Krautrock and world music became less marginal and more prophetic. You could play a good game of 'Where's Wobble?' in the history of that era, his trilby ever-present if rarely centre stage.” (If you don’t believe me check out the list.)

When Levene did work again, which didn’t seem often, it tended to be in collaboration - where his contribution was even less upfront than it had been in PiL. His main post-PiL act was to reunite with Wobble to form Metal Box In Dub, a calculated snub to Lydon’s reformed PiL. I never saw them, but YouTube tells of good things. Sadly, he died in November ’22. Peter Cook liked to tell a gag about his ambition in life being not to live up to his potential. Nothing was more true of Levene.

Saturday 20 May 2023


Royal Academy, London

“My art is evidence of my freedom”
- Thornton Dial

Birds Unflown

This show is subheaded ’Black Artists From The American South’, raising something interesting right at the start. The Great Migration, a pivotal event in Black American history, saw unprecedented numbers escape Southern segregation for newly opened-up jobs in the Northern cities. As this led to developments such as the electrification of Blues, we tend to think that when they left they took culture with them. We even came to use ‘urban’ as a polite euphemism when we didn’t want to say ‘black’.

The Civil Rights movement, starting in the mid-Fifties, may have been based in the South. But as that turned into Black Liberation, both broader in scope and more radical in expression, it expanded North and West, and took up more of a cultural form. The Tate’s recent show ‘Soul of A Nation (Art In The Age of Black Power)’ largely focused on this.So those who got left behind in that migration, surely they just got left behind. There were, in words from a work here, ’The Birds That Didn’t Learn How To Fly’.

Like all such assumptions, as soon as you say it out loud you see the absurdity of it. The majority stayed in the South, after all. So this show arrives as a welcome correction.

Both title and exhibits come from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation and Community Partnership of Atlanta, “dedicated to promoting the work of Black artists from the American South and supporting their communities by fostering economic empowerment, racial and social justice, and educational advancement”. And the title comes via a poem by Langston Hughes.

Most of this art was created not just outside of the art market but without access to art materials, and so was made with whatever the artist managed to forage. Take for example Lonnie Holley’s ’Copying The Rock’ (1995), below.

Holley himself has given us a choice of two explanations. The guidebook quotes him: “We can’t just copy the past. We got to deal with the new. Sometimes it’s like living in hell.” While Laura Porter writes of attending a talk where he said it was about the unreproducible quality of nature, where a photocopy of a rock is at best a poor approximation of its source. Which makes it sound almost like Magritte – “Ceci n’est pas un rocher”.

And who would be vain and rash enough to disagree with an artist about his own work? You’re looking at him. For more, I would say is afoot. Neither accounts for the seismic violence in it, as if the copier had been destroyed in the attempt of copying. Then there’s that savage statement scrawled on the lid - “it’s like I’m living in Hell”. (Alluded to only in the first explanation.)

It suggests to me the black American experience is a kind of unparseable truth, an oppression so extreme and so ingrained it can’t be communicated - any attempt will just wreck the recording device. I doubt you’re supposed to think of it, but it brought to my mind the famous Malcolm X quip - “we didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on us.”

Art is so often views, windows onto other places. Which we then rate according to how realised those other places are. Whereas Ronald Lockett’s ’Oklahoma’ (1995, above) is precisely the reverse, a frame without a picture, a kind of anti-window, the grille added almost as a taunt. It’s not a portal but a blocking device. And a most beleaguered one at that, various strips of sheet metal stuck together as if repeatedly patched up against the pitiless elements. The accumulation of sedimentary layers comes to be a common motif here.

Why’s it called ’Oklahoma’? Especially when the artist was from Alabama. That 1995 date is a clue. It commemorates the Oklahoma City bombing, where white nationalist terrorists killed 168 people.

And this sets the tone. References to oppression as a physical force run through the show, but the expression is normally oblique. There’s some drawings by Thornton Dial, with titles like ’Katrina’ (2005) and ’Slavery’ (2009), but the images aren’t the direct expressions they would suggest. Their dominant theme is discombobulation. ’Slavery’ may well be set in a plantation field, but it's a whirl of body parts as if they’re being washed down some giant plughole.

While his ’Blue Skies: The Birds That Didn’t Learn How To Fly’ (2008, above) hangs rags weatherbeaten from a line. They’re hung so low the image is dominated by that sky, which is actually gun-metal grey. It looks more like another oppressive weight than an escape route. And dour, acerbic titles such as that recur. Joe Minster titled a sculpture ’And He Hung His Head And Died’ (1999, while Richard Dial (Thornton’s son) called a 1988 piece ’Which Prayer Ended Slavery’.

Art As Alchemy

But everything above, while true, makes it too easy to overlook an equally vital fact - this art is not just creative and inventive, it’s actively playful. It’s like the famous story of the young Miles Davis being told by a college lecturer that Blues was the raw, inarticulate cry of the suffering black man, and him shouting back “you’re a goddamn liar!” The Thornton Dial quote up top… it’s up top because, if there was one takeaway you should take from this show, it would be that.

And this sense can’t be separated from the use of found materials. Ralph Griffin’s ’Midnight’ (1978, above) is really not much more than a bit of old wood. We effectively accept that art can find nascent identity in organic things. Sculptors commonly say they already see the shape inherently in the block of material, which their work only realises. So it’s only a small step to noting that you position a piece of wood in a certain way and it already resembles something. But just as significant is what he adds, the tin legs, the red plastic for eyes. To find life in nature, even dead nature, is one thing. To do it for tin and plastic is another. In a splendid detail, the nails that hammer in those bits of plastic become the pupils for the eyes.

Hawkin’s Bolden’s ’Untitled’ (1989, above) is more an assemblage than Griffin. The source of his materials, an old pot, a section of drainpipe, a baking tray, could scarcely be more obvious. So obvious there’s something comical to it. But there’s something charged about it too. It’s simultaneously a bunch of stuff stuck together and an entity.

Thornton Dial’s ’Tree Of Life (In the Image of Old Things’) (1994, above) decorates a wood assemblage with paint and decorative objects, including a crown. The concept of a single tree as the wellspring of all life is well known across cultures. Here Dial applies it to dead wood. Creativity can bring fruit even to barren trees.

…while his ’Stars Of Everything’ (2004, above) turns tin cans into brightly coloured stars. This is another show where thumbnail images get across little, in particular not conveying the 3D quality of this work, they way it seems to both recede and come out at you. As the stars are physically attached to the canvas we see them fade in size and colour, like looking at a full night sky.

The bird figure, in monochrome green, doesn’t seem an obvious addition. It cannot be resolved into a scene, it isn’t standing before a star field, its stepping out of the work and its dead eyes meet our gaze. (The guide suggests he’s an alter ego for the artists, like Ernst’s Loplop.)

What kind of mind looks at an old tin can and thinks of stars? My brain boggles at even the prospect of it! Dial described art as “a bright star up ahead in the darkness of the world.” And the quote which came unprompted to my mind this time was Wilde’s, “we’re all of us in the gutter, some of us looking at the stars.”

The show says “theirs is a story of transcendence, of the recuperative power of recycled - and reimagined - material.” And there is something alchemically transformative in turning detritus into stars. The origins of materials are normally hidden in art, mere props for the artist to exert their will upon them, their previous state pushed into the background. Think for example what a statement it is for a painter to leave even a small area of bare canvas on a work. While these materials are taken up less with a sense of “I will defy these constaints by finding a way to work with what you have reduced me to.” And more “hey, more cool stuff in this other dumpster over here!”

These old bits of driftwood or junk are transformed but also somewhere between elevated and realised, as if they had buried qualities only now brought to light. Some of the artists have commented that they themselves felt written off, allowing them to identify with the discarded. “I had been thrown away as a child, and here I was building something out of unwanted things,” said Lonnie Holley. Perhaps we should see the materials more as collaborators.

But while found materials might work for sculptors and assemblage-creators, it’ll be different for painters, right? Wrong. Mary T Smith’s ’Untitled’ (1984, above) doesn’t just use distressed piece of old corrugated tin for a canvas. It utilises those corrugations to capture the coloured stripes in the design. It’s not like she needed something to work on and in des
peration resorted to this, it’s like the material inspired the composition.

While Sam Doyle takes another old tin panel in ’LeBe’ (late 70s, above), and turns it into a romantic image. The figures are built around that central depression in the panel, until they become mirror images of one another, sheet-metal crossed lovers. Their arms don’t cross or go under one another, just un-naturalistically reflect. While the point where their mouths meet has a pair of lips painted flat on. You could see those lips and eyes as forming a single face. The artist’s initials split across the two sides perhaps suggest different parts of his personality coming together.

Jimmy Lee Sidduth painted on board rather than canvas. For which there is a tradition. (Well, more of one than there is tin.) But he painted with with grass stains, berry juice or - in ’Atlanta’ (1988, above) - mud. The restricted palette and painted borders are primitive. But the road leading up to the cityscape, with its ever-escalating towers, soaring till they touch the upper border? That isn’t so different to the way Nevinson depicted New York. Part of the appeal is the dynamic fusion of ‘folk’ forms with ‘modern’ content, a folk-art city.

While Purvis Young’s ’Carrying the Angel to the People’ (1994, above), is a kind of synthesis of stained glass windows and cave art. Particularly conveying the latter is the use of red ochre, a commonly available ‘paint’ even in stone age days, and the dominance of that giraffe-like animal. (Young apparently calls it a ‘freedom horse’.) While the sense of several scenes inside an overall design is more stained-glass window. We may note that, however varying those forms are in our common response to them, both are forms of religious art, and Young often gives his work religious themes, his figures sporting halos.

Not All Art is Protest

But we should also look at the exceptions here. Not all art is protest, not even by the extended definition we’ve come to here. And we should protest the notion it should be. Nor are black artists obliged to make ‘black art’. Charlie Lucas’ scrapyard assemblage ’Three-Way Bicycle’ (c. 1985) is Dada, resembling a functional object less and less the more you look at it. While the figure looks less riding the bicycle than part of it.

While Eldren M. Bailey’s plaster sculpture ’Dancers’ (1960s, above) captures the sweeping contours of those figures, even to the point of bending anatomy, in a way similar to Matisse. Their hair could be said to be in black style, but the theme of the work is simple love of the dance.

Primitive Modernists

So, does all this mean we’re looking an an exhibition of outsider art? Formally speaking, these folk operated outside the art market, or at least for much of their careers. And if this was all that was meant by that term, it would be fine to use. But the point is… it’s not, is it? And in fact its nebulousness is a large part of the problem.

We often like to romantically imagine pure outsider artists, possessing what we lack, uncontaminated by the art world the way noble savages are by civilisation. But while this art may have been made by marginalised Americans, they were still Americans, not some lost tribe in pure isolation. There’s every indication they were aware of developments in art. Dial’s ’Blue Skies’ looks like someone who has seen Abstract Expressionism, for example.

Nor was the influence just one-way. It’s impossible to see this show and not think of Rauschenberg. But it seems that, Texas-born, it was Rauschenberg who saw and became influenced by this art rather than the other way around. He was of course a great artist. But it’s another case of white folk gaining recognition for picking up on what black creators were doing. It’s like being told by everyone Captain Beefheart was a true original, then discovering Howlin’ Wolf.

A more interesting question might be, how aware were they of primitive art? Joe Minter devoted a whole area in Alabama to his works, which he called ’African Village In America’. And he’s quoted as saying “I’m listening to the ancestors coming through me to you”. Yet there’s no particular reason for a Black American to find their identity in that, any more than I look on the Sutton Hoo hoard and see myself. It’s the black American experience we see expressed here.

But at the same time… even if you’ve no greater empathy with primitive art, with its totemic functions, you’re less primed to treat it reverentially. You have more a sense of “this is mine to play with”, it becomes more malleable in your hands. What Minter thought wasn’t true. But believing it was empowering nonetheless.

And this cannot help but lead onto another question…

Unsurprisingly, artists without access to art materials didn’t tend to have much access to art galleries either. So came the yard show. One Americanism we Brits have had to grapple with is the yard sale. To sell off our tat, we need to lug it to a flea market. While they just turn their front yard into a shop. Now it seems we need to add to this the “distinctly Southern phenomenon” of the yard show, art taking the place of tat.

It’s not specified, but despite the common name it doesn’t look like this was a way to sell work. (And your neighbours were unlikely to be any better off than you.) It seems more about having a space to build up your works, until they combine into a kind of installation piece. The guidebook has a photo of Good Bread Alley in Miami which Purvis Young has pretty much entirely covered in paintings, even at the price of them overlapping one another (below).

And this takes us to yet another question - how was all this viewed by their neighbours? Was it seen as creating an indigenous black culture, or articulating popular concerns? Did artists become local celebrities, perhaps not always understood but still championed for brightening up their neighbourhoods? Were they tolerated as eccentrics, like Alfred Wallis in St. Ives? Or dismissed as weirdos? The show doesn’t consider this at all, alas.

Which leads to the most common criticism of this show, that it treats the work too reverentially. If its habitat is the accumulated yard sale, this art exhibition looks more like an art exhibition. (See for example the Time Out review.) I’m semi-sympathetic to this, but wonder if the yard show works best for individual artists or self-defined groups, so it doesn’t really matter if everything sloshes together into one mega-work. While round robin shows such as this may require some separation between the pieces. (There should be more photos and videos of the yard shows, that much is true.)

The works here date from the Sixties up to today. (The most recent being from last year.) Which means it starts at pretty much the point Modernism expired. Visit most contemporary exhibitions and they just look moribund, a corpse stuffed with some po-mo buzzwords. And you come away sadly concluding that ours is just not the era for visual art. Except here the art is not dry and sterile at all, but bold and alive. It virtually crackles with creativity! It’s like the primal purpose of art has not been forgotten after all. And yet we only hear of it now?

The question is of course its own answer. Ultimately, it’s not our times that screw up visual art, so much as the dead hand of the art market. Like the tourist industry does to places, it seizes excitedly on anything outside itself but only to subsume it. Outside that ever-grasping shadow, artists can still create.

Which raises the question, is there an way we can discover art like this, without it falling under the Art establishment’s sway? In short, there isn’t. There’s no showing this stuff in a secret hush-hush gallery, and not telling Jonathan Jones. Further, it’s true to say that all the disadvantages these artists faced became their advantages. But it’s also easy to say, for us at least. Subsisting is not always the easiest way to live, and finding a market to sell your wares had obvious advantages. The art market is a form of the labour market, something we may not like but can’t simply ignore. While we continue to live under the system we live under, there’ll be no right answer to this. But this show’s a testament to the credo that creativity will always find a way.

Saturday 13 May 2023


Barbican, London
Thurs 4th May

If your idea of Irish folk is professionally genial types trilling “fiddle-de-i-de-o” in plastic Paddy pubs, Lankum are your necessary antidote.

They’re part of the same general Dublin scene as John Francis Flynn, last seen on the roof of the De La Warr. But a better compare-and-contrast would be, conveniently enough, the last folk gig attended before this - the Scottish duo Burd Ellen. Both are part of what I’m dubbing Drone Folk until a better name comes along. (Which hopefully won’t be long.)

Except Burd Ellen are bewitching, like if you listen to them too long you’ll never make it back out of that enchanted wood. While Lankum are definitely about this mortal world, less likely to be found in the faerie realm, and more the graveyard. Less Edmund Spenser, more Thomas Hardy. Its long been a truism that folk songs have a higher body count than gangster rap. But Lankum push that along more than a little, with mortality as inevitable as the closing rhyme. Like death in a folk tale, relentlessly stalking his victim, tracks are long, slow and - above all - patient.

’The Pride Of Petravore’ starts with violin and bowed acoustic guitar. It sounds like the creaking of the world turning, more the sort of thing the Kronos Quartet would bring to the Barbican, by a composter from some East European country you hadn’t known existed. They then throw a jaunty tin whistle tune over the top. Which only makes the thing more eerie. (And later add a vocal section, not to be found on the record, folks.)

So they can feel like they’re on a mission to take folk standards and twist them. ’The Wild Rover’ opens the set, and what’s normally a raucous drinking song in their hands become bleak as moorland. Even when they go in for reels, as they do for the finale, there’s something slightly unhinged, almost possessed about them. Their sound has been compared to Sunn 0))), Swans and My Bloody Valentine, all Lucid Frenzy faves but scarcely standard folk influences.

Except they more commonly work the other way up to that. It’s a bit like the way the Velvet Underground brought together folk and rock - not as a creative contrast but as though the two had belonged together all along, and somehow no-one had noticed before now. In their way, Lankum are quite a traditional folk outfit. Their albums come with sleeve notes relating how they came across these songs, described at one point as “long thought forgotten.” They play traditional instruments, at least most of the time. Radie Peat even sings with a hand cupped to her ear. They just bring out the unhurried nature of those songs and the natural drone tendencies of those instruments.

And this may be most evident in the Radie Peat songs, such as ’Go Dig My Grave’ or ’Hunting the Wren’, which glowers with a slow-building intensity under vocals which exude inevitability. Other instruments get added along the way, but not adding countermelodies so much as thickening the stew. And so, however much I loved the Burd Ellen gig, I guess in the final count I just love Lankum more.

A view which seems surprisingly widespread. I’d cynically expect them to be one of those bands who win armfuls of awards and occasionally sell a record or two. In fact the popular appetite for eight-minute dirges about death turns out to be quite high. The Barbican’s packed, and I’ve seen bands whose finale didn’t get as much enthusiastic applause as the opening number receives here. Is this because they’re so good at it? Or do songs about the inevitability of mortality capture the spirit of the moment? Probably both.

...and finally, correcting a heckler, Peat explained her name’s pronounced “Ray-dee.” Which means if she ever married Roddy Radiation she’d be Radie Radiation. I think we should try to set them up.

’Go Dig My Grave’, from Paris, a couple of days before…

(Feat. Jah Wobble + the Invaders of the Heart)
Chalk, Brighton
Sun 7th May

“Let’s just start, shall we?” Jah Wobble gets going with characteristic genial geezerishness. But we here at Lucid Frenzy Tower are more in the way of obsessive nerds, so we’re going to lead up to things…

Public Image Ltd’s, ’Metal Box’ is seen as a definitive Post-Punk album, but more than that it’s surely one of the classic albums of all time. A reputation underlined by personality clashes ensuring that line-up never recorded again. It stood alone, or so it seemed.

Then about a decade ago, John Lydon reformed PiL. Some accounts say he offered Wobble ever-more silly amounts of money to rejoin. But Wobble instead took up with the other ex-member, Keith Levene, as Metal Box In Dub. And though alas I never got to see them, reworked versions of those days were already showing up in Wobble’s solo let. (Presumably why two tracks from the first album, ’Public Image’ and ’Fodderstompf’, show up here.) 

When Levene sadly died last year, that looked to be that. Except Wobble subsequently released the ’Metal Box: Rebuilt In Dub’ album. And, as you may have already guessed, toured.

Though reasons for the separate reunions were decidedly personal (Lydon had, at different times, sacked both Wobble and Levene), music differences still ensued. New PiL… let’s call them that… were essentially a new band working to the PiL mindset, and treated those tracks as covers, to be reworked in their own style. While with Wobble they’re more like standards which need souping up and rejuvenating.

He recites one of the album’s lyrics, “I could be wrong, it could be hate”. And it’s odd to think back to the time where the arch-egoist Lydon was writing so much about self-doubt. But more the point here is what this says about the music. ’Metal Box’ was a bold statement, audaciously calling time on the old, but there was also something sketch-like, almost tentative about it. The mostly improvised tracks found their way by walking it.

Yet at the same time the thumping bass of Reggae sound systems had been a big influence. Chiefly channelled through Wobble’s bass, often the through-line holding those tracks together. And so these powered-up reworkings both take the music forward and bring it back to its roots. And to hear these tracks delivered with such resounding force is something of a revelation! Old chassis, new engine.

There’s little of the spaciness so associated with Dub. “In Dub” means, I suspect, in the Dub spirit of taking what’s done as raw materials for what’s being done right now. And let’s remember what got Wobble sacked from PiL, at least ostensibly, was reworking tracks for his solo releases. ’Metal Box Goes Dancefloor’ might better capture the sound. The album cover’s of a speaker, after all. With those thumping riffs perhaps even ’Metal Box Goes Rock’, which would have been heresy back in those anti-rockist days!

So ’Albatross’ opened the album, the New PiL gig I went to, and it does again here. In fact as the Wobble and Levene gigs had a different, more free-form feel, that gives us four separate versions! And those four versions could scarcely sound more different. So many different ways to get rid of an albatross.

Wobble also says “who wants some Dub? And some fun?” And, perhaps strangely, this is a little like seeing a band who’ve played these tracks for years, and now need to throw in changes to keep themselves sane. Snatches of other numbers, not necessarily other PiL tracks, are thrown in without warning or explanation. And the band lark about on stage even more than they usually do. (Leading to some lark-like dancing in the audience.) The combination is bit like being in the path of a jet engine while the Captain cracks gags over the tannoy, exhilarating but also discombobulating.

The only weak points… As mentioned after seeing Wobble before, he may be the walking, talking definition of a character. But he does lack Lydon’s characterful voice. Moreover, vocals on ’Metal Box’ aren’t the typical upfront audience-addressing affair, they work more as another instrument in the mix. And Levene’s guitar often seemed pitched to match Lydon’s tones. All of which makes them hard to emulate.

The gigs with Levene had a separate singer. Here his solution is often just to recite the lyrics, which is a little bit “don’t try, can’t fail”. It may work best when they’re just dispensed with, as they are with ’Albatross’ and ’Swan Lake’. And if there’s many assembled here who don’t already know the words I’d be surprised. (Honourable exception - ’The Suit’, where the words are pretty much recited anyway.)

Also, the keyboards can be a strangely normalising element. They only time they were used on the album was when they took the place of guitar. Here there’s points where they seem superfluous, or even actively getting in the way. They don’t really come into their own until the encore, where ’Metal Box’ is done with and they head more into the regular Wobble world.

In brief, going back to a classic album doesn’t need to be nostalgist or retrograde. It can even be a way of looking forward…

There seems a shortage of live footage, so here’s the studio version of ’Albatross’

Saturday 6 May 2023


Courtauld Gallery, London 

”I never try to create real spaces - only painted spaces. That’s all I am interested in.”
-Peter Doig

Strange 'n' Foreign

As these exhibition posts gave away some while ago, there’s not many contemporary artists which interest me. And the few that do, they don’t turn out to be painters all that much. Then I finally find one, and it turns out he’s really something of a throwback to Modernism.

Click on that link above, and you’ll discover the show effectively sold itself on the basis that Doig… deep breath… “has long admired the collection of The Courtauld Gallery and the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists who are at its heart have been a touchstone for [his] own painting and printmaking over the course of his career. Visitors will be able to consider Doig’s contemporary works in the light of paintings by earlier artists in The Courtauld’s collection that are important for him, such as those by C├ęzanne, Gauguin, Manet, Monet, Pissarro and Van Gogh.”

All true, except I’d be tempted to head that list with Gauguin. Similarly to his Tahitian escapades, Edinburgh-born Doig spent twenty years in Trinidad. In his case his parents took him there as a child. But there’s a similar sense of art which is rich with strangeness, evoking exotic locations.

’Music (2 Trees)’ (2019, above) even looks like folk art. Partly due to the naive style, achieved partly by painting pigment on linen, leading to colours as deep as oil but as loose and flowing as watercolour. The figures are arranged in a neat diagonal, the two guitars aligned across it, but the rough cropping makes the work look casual. This pushes those figures into the foreground, as though they’re outside the frame. An effect enhanced by their being in such bold colours. The title suggests we should see the trees as representing the sound of their music, which in itself suggests those legends of the landscape being conjured up by song or ritual.

’Alpinist’ (2109/22, above) also places a figure before a landscape, only before a quite different landscape and in a quite different way. He’s not just brightly coloured, he’s painted near life size. If this were a painting of ordinary size and dimensions, that would mean he dominated. But with this extended work (nearly three metres tall) your eye first falls on those crossed skis.

A harlequin outfit in a painting, particularly on a solitary figure. It’s perhaps needless to say but this doesn’t mean a jolly entertainer - in fact, precisely the reverse. And the figure trudges downcast away from the background, the skis less a mode of transport than a cross to bear. But there’s parallels throughout, the cross of the skis against that mountain peak, the diamonds of that outfit against the triangles of trees behind him. A relatively straightforward-looking image turns out to be rich with ambiguities.

’Night Bathers’ (2011/19, above) is one of several works set at night. And we’re told Doig liked to paint during darkness. Though we can see the sea well enough, I like to think those figures are actually bathing in the blue of moonlight. They seem to shimmer, to float eerily, like apparitions. And there’s a stillness to the scene, you can’t picture them getting up and walking away. To the Courtauld’s list above, perhaps we need to add Whistler’s nocturnes.

An Outsider’s Eye

But we might get closer to the heart of Doig with ’Music Shop’ (2109/23, above), which notably also goes back to both the figure-before-a-setting motif, and the music theme. The naive style is emphasised by that blocky foreground figure, one arm hanging straight down, the other seemingly just a placed hand. While in a kind of visual gag the guitar he clutches is not so different to the double bass flatly painted on that shop wall.

The shop fills the frame, and through its windows isn’t an interior but an exterior, a seafront scene. Entering the shop is to enter Trinidad, with the guitar not a purchase but a badge of entry. He looks around, but not back at us, more as if he’s checking he’s not followed.

Doig surely is influenced by Gaugin, but almost as a rejoinder. Gauguin was forever keen to convince you he fitted in to the spaces he painted, the bohemian more at home while abroad. And after a while this becomes like that white guy who’s forever telling you how many cool black mates he has, without you ever seeming to meet any.

Whereas, as the show says, Doig “has an etherial quality that makes everything feel just out of reach”. He paints with an outsider’s eye, depicting a folk culture rich with meanings which are foreign to us. (And in fact we’re told that figure, with his distinctive coat, is a known character in Trinidadian culture. Perhaps appropriately, I’ve already forgotten his name.) The show includes a poem from Derek Walcott to Doig which sums this up well, starting with “Will your brush pick up an accent/ And singsong infect your melody?”

Not that this outsiderness was confined to Trinidad. ’Canal’ (2023) was painted post his return, in fact very shortly before the show its now hung in. And its of a London towpath probably not too far from here. The green table pushes out of the frame, suggesting the child is sitting right opposite us, while the double-yolked egg suggests shared activity.

Yet the child doesn’t meet our eye and the painting also recedes far into the distance (emphasised by the red lines traced on the towpath), and seems ungraspably strange. The sky is a nocturnal grey yet everything seems brightly lit, reds, greens and blues as bold as primary colours. (In an ambiguous effect similar to ’Alpinist’.) Perhaps Trinidad affected Doig enough to make him an outsider even when he was back in Britain. Or perhaps its not citizenship but being an artist which is the crucial distinction, with the eye that’s always framing scenes, always looking in on places.

Eddy Frankel, writing in ‘Time Out’, had a slightly different takeaway. Perhaps riffing on so many of these works being finished after Doig had decamped to London (hence those long creation dates), he saw in them…

“…brutal, almost uncomfortable nostalgia. Because nostalgia isn’t pleasant, it’s a longing for the past, something you can never have… to me, this is Doig grasping, reaching out, trying desperately, feverishly to hold on to those memories, and failing. That's why there’s this constant interplay between haze and solidity, foggy mess and thick lines; some of each memory is vivid, almost real and tangible, and other bits are fading inescapably away forever.”

But to me this disregards the way something like ’Canal’ makes you feel so present and simultaneously so estranged, so there and yet so not. But what might be more notable is what these views have in common. Even as we stand and look at these paintings, all straightforward views onto pictorial space, we understand they have some elusive quality to them which we will never get at.

This show may have the advantage of showing Doig in context. But it isn’t large, comprising precisely twelve paintings and twenty works on paper. Apparently he had a fuller show at the Whitechapel back in the Nineties, and hopefully he’ll be given another soon. But for now these provisional findings will have to suffice…