Some of the articles I’ve written for Sabotage Times over the last few years.
Nirvana: In Utero is a great album, but it’s no Nevermind
Let’s be clear, In Utero is a sensational album. It’s a five-star classic, a must-have of its genre and the home of several astonishing songs. It demands to be played and enjoyed over and over again and the 20th anniversary reissue, due in September 2013 is a welcome reminder of that.
Ahead of the anniversary, many commentators will tell you that In Utero is Nirvana’s crowning achievement, showcasing Kurt Cobain’s song writing and the power of the band with a raw sound more reflective of the band’s punk roots and indie ethos than its more successful predecessor. While Kurt and the other band members certainly claimed to prefer their final studio album and, in the present day, its production has aged better than much of their 1991 breakthrough, the fact is that Nevermind has the better songs.
Nevermind was a creative peak for Nirvana. It stemmed from the time that they got serious as artists, settled on their seminal line-up (Cobain, Novoselic, Grohl) and focused their ambitions beyond being grunge also-rans. Many of the songs on their 1989 debut album, Bleach had barely been more than riffs with a few lyrics barked over the top; to great effect in some cases, like on Negative Creep and School, less so on others (Scoff, Swap Meet, Mr Moustache). Only About a Girl, with hindsight, and the non-album single Sliver hinted at the quantum leap forward in crafting songs that the band’s second album would represent.
Half of the material for Nevermind had been written and demoed in a session with their producer Butch Vig more than a year before the album was recorded. At this time all three members of the band were dirt-poor and totally committed to the success of the album. They played dozens of live shows in the intervening months and rehearsed endlessly, producing further songs of the highest quality, including the trailblazing single Smells Like Teen Spirit and its follow up, Come As You Are. When they went to Los Angeles in May 1991 to record their second album the quality of the original material they had accumulated was spectacular.
A record that opens with a track as celebrated as Teen Spirit could be forgiven for dropping off steeply in quality by track two, but Nevermind doesn’t. In Bloom, Breed and Stay Away are like companion pieces to the opener, featuring the same loud/quiet dynamics, but each with its own exhilarating and memorable hook. Lithium, with its lip-curling riff and the uplifting ‘yeah yeahs’ of the chorus, had been expected to be the first single from the album until Teen Spirit came along and set the bar that little bit higher.
Come As You Are, with its watery chorus effects, offers a downbeat variation on the theme and the acoustic tracks, Polly and Something In The Way are as powerful and memorable as anything else on the album. The ludicrously overdriven Territorial Pissings is like a throwback to Bleach, but played with more conviction and at a Minor Threat tempo. Hundreds of bands have had long careers without producing anything as good as On A Plain, but on Nevermind it’s regarded as a minor album track. Even the slice of Scratch Acid-style noise of the hidden track, Endless, Nameless is exhilarating, evoking the chaos of the band’s live show. It’s an awesome selection of songs, but it’s so much more than that. As a whole the album is varied enough to always be interesting, but coherent enough to maintain the mood of lazy, youthful aggression and outsider defiance throughout. It’s a showcase for the ferocious noise that the band could make, particularly for Dave Grohl’s punishing drumming and Kurt Cobain’s smashed-glass vocals. This is how Krist Novoselic once described Nevermind; ‘It’s pop. It’s just that the guitars are heavy’. True, and maybe it isn’t ground breaking musically, but it smashed down the barrier between underground music and the mainstream and it sounds great.
In Utero sounds great too. But while Nirvana were a focused, committed unit on Nevermind, by the time they recorded their follow up everything had changed. They were no longer dirt-poor and they didn’t need to spend all their time together anymore. They had become hugely successful, which led to increased pressure from their management and record label and accusations from their former peers about having sold out. Kurt was hailed as the spokesman for his generation; a title he bore with immense discomfort and which led him to become much more introspective in his lyric writing.
There had been arguments over royalties, with Kurt demanding a backdated higher share than his band mates. Courtney was now on the scene and Kurt’s heroin addiction had escalated alarmingly. On top of all this upheaval was the idea from within the band that they had lost credibility; that their new found popularity excluded them from the underground where they felt they belonged. Kurt was the keenest of the trio to restore their punk reputation, and he was happy to alienate a large proportion of the band’s newer fans in the process, but he was less keen to relinquish his reputation as a brilliant songwriter and the leader of the world’s foremost ‘alternative rock’ band. While Nevermind is the sound of a united Nirvana trying to reach the ears of a disaffected generation, In Utero is a conflicted Nirvana pushing in several directions at once. It is as confused as Nevermind is coherent.
There are some amazing tunes on the album though. The opening track, Serve The Servants is joyous and it even starts with a joke; the opening atonal chord which suggests that the album will be the near-unlistenable noise fest that many had anticipated, before morphing into a straightforward, angst-filled, grunge-pop song. Heart-Shaped Box may be the best song Nirvana ever recorded, combining the raw openness of Something In The Way with killer guitar riffs and reprising the loud/quiet trademark from Nevermind. Pennyroyal Tea is moving and exciting with some fine, self-deprecating lyrics (‘I’m anaemic royalty’). All Apologies is beautiful; like a more ambitious and confident Polly.
The songs are never less than interesting but too often they don’t feel fully-formed. Milk It, Tourette’s, Frances Farmer…, Radio Friendly Unit Shifter, Scentless Apprentice all seem like the products of a self-conscious reversion to thrown-together punk song writing, which is fine, and they’re exciting to listen to, but they don’t stand up well to the songs on Nevermind, or to the fully-formed highlights on In Utero. Rape Me is another example. This song is highly-regarded by many Nirvana fans because it adheres to the loud/quiet template and it displays Kurt’s hypersensitivity (and also, if you’re feeling cynical, it sounds a little like Teen Spirit but has retained its kudos by remaining relatively obscure). In the case of Rape Me, not only does the final song feel undercooked, with too few lyrics and ideas, but isn’t a millionaire rock star using rape as an analogy for his own privileged situation in slightly bad taste? We know the situation eventually drove him over the edge, but there’s an element of self-indulgence about it and maybe an element of trying too hard to shock the mainstream portion of their audience.
So In Utero has its faults, but it’s always worth another listen. It’s more diverse sounding than Nevermind, both in terms of accessibility and in terms of quality and it was an excellent way to follow the band’s breakthrough (Nevermind 2 would have been unnecessary and a mistake). It does what an album is supposed to do; show where the band is at a particular moment in time. As a result it’s more emotional, raw, abrasive and cynical that its predecessor, but in terms of the songs, it’s only their second best album.
First published in Sabotage Times, September 2013
Pixies: Doolittle – 25 years on and still their masterpiece
When Pixies originally released Doolittle in 1989 they were already massively popular in underground music circles. Everybody who’d heard them loved them and if you had an interest in indie music any time up to the mid-nineties, it almost went without saying that they were a band you listened to.
They looked like shit – “Charlie Brown made flesh” and his backing band of misfits – but nobody else sounded like them. They screamed about mutilation, surrealism, biblical slaughter and incest, they used weird time signatures and song dynamics, they did touching love songs, and sometimes they sung in Spanish. They enjoyed the same artistic kudos as contemporaries My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth, but were much more accessible. They’re responsible for some of the best and most influential guitar music of the last 30 years and Doolittle was their creative peak and finest hour.
Pixies started up without any drama in in 1986. Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV and Joey Stantiago were at college in Boston and started playing some of the songs that Charles had written. They recruited Kim Deal, the only bass player to reply to their personal advert in the Boston Phoenix, who knew of a drummer, David Lovering. For no reason he’s ever adequately explained, Charles adopted the stage name Black Francis, and that was it – their definitive line-up was in place for the next seven years.
Their first demo tape was so well received that eight songs from it were released as a mini album, Come on Pilgrim, in 1987. This record received glowing reviews and sold more than anyone expected. For their first full album they were recorded by one of the few people in the music industry who didn’t like them. Steve Albini famously described Pixies as “a band who at their top dollar best are blandly entertaining college rock”, (a remark he later retracted and apologised for). But Surfer Rosa, the album that he worked on with them (and described as “a patchwork pinchloaf”) was even more enthusiastically received than its predecessor, particularly in the UK where they recorded four sessions for John Peel and the album topped album of the year lists for 1988.
Doolittle was the follow up to Surfer and Gil Norton was recruited to produce. Norton was both highly talented and a huge fan, so it seems natural that the album should be a triumph. But the band was starting to implode. Tensions among the members generally, and particularly between its two main creative forces – Francis and Deal – were high. The pair had collaborated often, including on Gigantic which had become the most popular song on Surfer but, despite this, Francis had now decided that this was his band and he was writing all the music and all the lyrics from now on.
Despite this tension and self-inflicted pressure, Black Francis wrote an album of brilliant songs. Kim Deal put her resentment aside and her song writing energies into producing material for The Breeders’ incredible debut album, Pod, which would be released in 1990 (and put another nail in the coffin of Pixies). Every one of the fifteen tracks on the album is great, despite the diversity of styles, from the melodic power pop of opener Debaser, with its surrealist twist in the lyrics ‘slicing up eyeballs/I want you to know’ – to the brooding quiet, loud, quiet of Gouge Away at the finish. Generally it’s more melodic than Pilgrim or Surfer Rosa, with the Beatles-like Here Comes Your Man and uplifting rock murder-suicide fantasy that is Wave of Mutilation, but it gets abrasive too on Tame and on Dead. The Spanish-tinged Crackity Jones and There Goes My Gun wouldn’t sound out of place on Come on Pilgrim but the stand out song is the least typical of the band. Monkey Gone to Heaven was released as a single and is a catchy, bass-led meditation on environmental issues and God. Francis is sometimes criticised for undercooking his lyrics and he happily admits that for him it’s the least important part of a song, but on Doolittle and especially on Monkey Gone to Heaven, he hits it just right, provoking thought without prescribing what to think.
Norton got great performances from the group and spent more time on production than anyone had previously, maintaining the prominent rhythm section, but adding subtle flourishes – overdubs, multi-tracking, strings on Monkey Gone to Heaven – without overwhelming the songs. Against all odds, the band sound like they’re having a good time and Lovering even gets to sing for the one and only time on La La Love You, a parody of the band’s own love songs. The album hangs together perfectly, like it was conceived as a whole, as all great albums do.
As well as receiving near-universal critical acclaim, Doolittle became the Pixies’ biggest selling album. The band couldn’t keep their internal tensions from affecting them for much longer and their next two albums suffered as a result before Black Francis split the band up and went solo as Frank Black. In 2004 they reformed and starting touring again and in April 2014 released their first new album since 1993, Indie Cindy. A few months later in December, 4AD have released an expanded edition of Doolittle on CD and vinyl, featuring the original album, Peel Sessions, B-Sides and unheard demos. Indie Cindy was welcomed by a good proportion of fans of the band from 25 years ago and it has its moments, but Doolittle 25 invites comparisons with the band at its height, from which there can only be one winner. Popular as they were, for many reasons – timing, lack of ambition, the fact that their frontman looked like “Charlie Brown made flesh” – Pixies never got as big as they should have. Anyone who’s missed this band and this album up to now should take the opportunity to right that wrong.
First published in Sabotage Times, December 2014
Public Enemy: Fear Of A Black Planet
Public Enemy’s third album, Fear of a Black Planet, continued where their second It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back, had left off, but notched up the power, musically and lyrically. Chuck D calls Fear of a Black Planet the group’s Sergeant Pepper’s, and, as a deluxe edition of the album is released ahead of its twenty-fifth anniversary, it stands up as well as The Beatles’ finest, both as a piece of art and as a document of its time. But it nearly wasn’t made and it would be impossible to make anything like it now.
It’s hard now to appreciate just how controversial Public Enemy were seen to be back in 1989. Their paramilitary imagery and advocacy of Black Marxism, the Nation of Islam in particular, had long been seized on by mainstream media. Chuck D gave hundreds of interviews in which he routinely treated interviewers as adversaries. One of these is referenced on the album track Incident At 66.6 FM, which samples a radio phone-in during which the presenter cheerfully laughs off one caller who invites the band to “go back to Africa” while another refers to their fans as “scum”.
As Public Enemy’s profile rose following the release of Nation of Millions, events saw the controversy around the group shoot higher than ever. First, they recorded Fight the Power for the Spike Lee film Do The Right Thing. Fight the Power is the definitive Public Enemy track – aggressive, uplifting, funky, relentless, angry – with Chuck’s powerful and righteous rap matched by samples, piled higher than ever before by The Bomb Squad production team. The chanted chorus “Fight the power, fight the powers that be” sounded like a call to arms and, allied to Lee’s brilliant film – controversial in its own right and culminating in a race riot rather than a happy resolution – ensured more notoriety for the group. But Chuck stating in rhyme that Elvis “never meant shit to me” and Flavor Flav following that up with “motherfuck him and John Wayne” became more of a talking point to some commentators, who weren’t happy to hear American heroes being blasted and dismissed as racist.
A TV interview given by the group’s ‘Minister of Information’, Professor Griff in which he stated that Jews were responsible for “the majority of the wickedness that goes on across the globe” was the other factor to boost the group’s notoriety. Griff, a founder member of Public Enemy, had become isolated recently with Chuck taking responsibility as spokesman for the group and Flavor Flav’s reckless behaviour provoking him to physically attack him. Though Chuck would never apologise for Griff’s comments he was used to defending his colleague and presenting a toned-down and acceptable spin on his more extreme views; but the backlash from this incident wasn’t going away and Griff was dismissed. Chuck felt that Griff’s views had been taken out of context and was furious that the group was being held collectively responsible for the individual comments of one of its members. Media silence followed this announcement and rumours spread that Public Enemy could be finished.
It almost was, but instead the band returned to Long Island, got in the studio and started on a new album. The single Welcome to the Terrordome was released January 1990. It’s another sample-heavy classic, punctuated with scratches from Terminator X. Chuck is angrier than ever here, kicking off with the battered but defiant line “I got so much trouble on my mind/refuse to lose”. Later he rhymes “apologies made to whoever pleases/still they got me like Jesus”, a reference to his trial by media, though it invites misinterpretation given the nature of the Professor Griff furore. It’s a great song and it showed that Public Enemy weren’t about to start playing it safe.
Fear of a Black Planet was released in April 1990, and it was a progression in every way from Nation of Millions. The Bomb Squad had perfected their production techniques to produce a denser, richer, multi-layered sound – their ‘sonic wall’. Copyright law was changed shortly after the album so that royalties had to be paid on all samples used in recordings. So many samples were used in the making of Black Planet that if it were made under current laws the group would lose money on every copy sold. Chuck’s delivery was not only more defiant than ever before, but it was more ambitious, with sophisticated internal rhymes, as in Who Stole the Soul, “I learned we earned, got no concern/Instead so burned so where the hell is our return?” Flavor Flav comes to the fore more on this album and gives us the funk classic 911 Is A Joke and the genuinely funny Can’t Do Nuttin’ For Ya Man, the third and fifth singles from the album.
Chuck always saw Flav as a vital counterbalance to his own serious messages and Flav’s comic interventions are welcome amongst the rhetoric here. Chuck saw his own role in the band as to provoke rather than to lead and on the title track, Meet the G that Killed Me, Burn Hollywood Burn (featuring guest vocals from Ice Cube and Big Daddy Kane) among many others Chuck does just that.
Fear of a Black Planet received near-universal acclaim from reviewers and it sold a million in its first week. It is as influential as an album can get but nobody has ever matched Public Enemy’s power. It still overwhelms a quarter of a century after its original release. This is what it sounds like when a group at the top of its game gets backed into a corner and comes out fighting.
First published in Sabotage Times, December 2014
Swervedriver – I Wasn’t Born To Lose You
It seems like every band from the past reforms these days, if it ever goes away at all, but there’s always a concern when a cherished group from 20 plus years ago releases an album of new material. It has to sound like progress without alienating their fans. 25 years after their classic debut EPs, Swervedriver have released their first album of this century.
Having gone on ‘hiatus’ in 1998 on the back of their disappointing fourth LP 99th Dream, Swervedriver started making occasional live appearances in 2008. With frontman Adam Franklin continuing his prolific solo work, these live shows seemed likely to be no more than a play around in the nostalgia scene, until they released a new song, Deep Wound, as a single in 2013. Subsequently they started working on new material in 2014 and their fifth album I Wasn’t Born To Lose You was released on 3rd March 2015.
Swervedriver were one of the better British bands of the early nineties and they gained considerable popularity in the UK and America without ever catching the right wave to make them really big. Originally misidentified as part of the piss-awful and (mercifully) short-lived ‘shoegazer’ scene that My Bloody Valentine and Jesus & Mary Chain inadvertently spawned, they were later labelled as a grunge band. They certainly shared roots with many grunge bands (Husker Du, Dinosaur Jr, Stooges) but that was as far as the similarity went and, ultimately, as the popularity of that sub-genre faded, the label did them no favours. Their sound developed away from the searing, psychedelic noise that had originally won them fans and shifted their first two albums. But while third LP Ejector Seat Reservation was critically acclaimed, their fourth wasn’t. With sales dropping, record company politics getting complicated and the band members tired of constantly touring, they called it a day in 1998.
I Wasn’t Born To Lose You sees Swervedriver revisiting the musical framework of their debut, Raise and its follow up, Mezcal Head. A more mature and considered version of that framework, maybe, but they were always a pretty grown-up band anyway, and it still sounds fresh, vibrant and full of energy.
Opener Autodidact sets the tone with its swirling, multi-layered guitars and a chiming, atonal hook reminiscent of Sonic Youth, while Last Rites is upbeat, psychedelic pop – a combination of My Bloody Valentine and early Foo Fighters.
Lone Star and the first single Deep Wound feature hypnotic riffing that would fit comfortably on to Raise, while Setting Sun places intricate, spiralling guitar lines over an insistent descending bass.
For A Day Like Tomorrow and English Subtitles have touches of the ambient psychedelia of Franklin’s Toshack Highway. Everso is the album’s most introspective – almost mournful – moment.
Closing track I Wonder builds and builds into the feedback-laden cacophony which fans of the band’s early work will have been hoping for, but the highlight is Red Queen Arms Race, with its squally guitars, reverberating feedback and vocals channelled through every effects pedal in the studio, piled high on to Steve George’s massive bassline. It recalls Spacemen 3 at their most intense.
I Wasn’t Born To Lose You recaptures the power and synergy of Swervedriver at their best and marries is it to the more mature song-writing style that Adam Franklin has developed in recent years. It has a consistent sound, but is varied enough to keep the listener’s attention from start to finish. Like all of Swervedriver’s work it sounds better and better with repeated listens as the various strands in each tune become untangled. Any concerns that their comeback album would alienate the band’s original fans were misplaced; in fact this is some of their best work to date.
First published in Sabotage Times, March 2015
Jah Wobble – ReDux: Anthology 1978-2015
It’s fair to say that Jah Wobble has been busy. Since starting out as the founding bass player for Public Image Ltd in 1978 he’s produced dozens of albums as a solo artist, in collaborations (with Brian Eno, Primal Scream, The Edge, Holger Czukay among hundreds more) and with his band Invaders of the Heart. His work rate and refusal to be bound by genre conventions have made him one of Britain’s most surprising and unpredictable musical talents. ReDux: Anthology 1978-2015, released on Cherry Red Records in May 2015, is a lavishly packaged 92-song, six-CD collection celebrating his unique career.
John Wardle was a college friend of two future Sex Pistols. It was Sid Vicious who gave him the nickname Jah Wobble and John Lydon who offered him the chance to play bass in his first post Pistols band, Public Image Ltd. Three PiL tracks are included on the Greatest Hits disc, their classic first single Public Image (“my first time in a studio”), Poptones and the very eerie Careering from the classic Metal Box album. The Greatest Hits disc also includes two versions of the spiritual 1991 collaboration with Sinead O’Connor Visions Of You, disco tracks Tightrope and Feel from 2011, Amor Dub, featuring Chaka Demus and Pliers and the excellent new single Merry Go Round, which harks back to Madchester era Happy Mondays.
Wobble left Public Image Ltd in 1980 to begin a solo career and, in his own words “it’s been, commercially speaking, a long steady decline since then!” His 80s output is given a disc of its own in ReDux and the opening tracks – collaborations with Jaki Leibezeit and Holger Czukay from Can – are among the highlights of the whole collection. Disco-dub crossover How Much Are They and electro-funk number Hold Onto Your Dreams sound like templates for much of the music that would come to define that decade and show how far ahead of the mainstream Jah Wobble has been. Other highlights from the 80s disc include the folksy, Doors-like A Long, Long Way and the funky Afro-rock of Sea Side Special.
Other than PiL, Jah Wobble is probably most closely associated with world music and ReDux includes a 17-track disc dedicated to world and roots music. He has a long history of experimenting with genres and musicians from other cultures, inventively blending instruments and voices with his distinctive basslines to create songs that are simultaneously familiar and exotic. Some of the best examples included here are L1, an instrumental combining Chinese guzheng with hip hop beats and funk basslines and New Mexico Dub, which mixes Arabic and Mexican influences into a psychedelic reggae tune. ReDux comprises Wobble collaborations with musicians and vocalists from South America, Africa, Europe and Asia, always underpinned and made accessible by his prominent bass, which is integral but never showy or limelight-hogging.
ReDux also includes a disc of jazz tracks, one of ambient/spoken word material and one of newly recorded cover versions. Wobble’s inventiveness and sense of fun is displayed in each of these collections. On the jazz disc Car Ad Music 3 is a high-tempo jazz and flute jam set to a rhumba beat, while the trippy Rush Hour and Miles Davis-like Loquacious Loretta, from his 2013 album with Bill Sharpe are other highlights. The ambient/spoken word disc features lazy, trip hop style tracks like Ocean Of Hills, more raucous stuff like the Chemical Brothers sounding Gardens of Suburbia and examples of Wobble’s poetry read to music, the best of which is Sacred, an observation on spirituality (“gongs bashed/ incense burnt/prayers recited/sutras learnt”). The best tune on the covers disc is the reggae version of The Good, The Bad & The Ugly Theme, which will surely find its way onto a film soundtrack soon.
Jah Wobble’s music can take you to places that you’ve never been before and bring you styles of music and combinations of sounds and instruments that you won’t hear anywhere else. If you’re open to new listening experiences, there’s a huge range here, all underpinned by Wobble’s distinctive, funky basslines. There’s such a variety of genres on show in ReDux that not all the tracks will appeal to every listener – I found some of the spoken word stuff a little dull and the some of the cover versions seem a bit pointless – but there’s plenty to enjoy. But anyway, as the man himself has said “I’m not terribly concerned with whether or not people like my music. My music is a part of me. Saying you don’t like my music is like saying you don’t like my nose or the shape of my ear – point taken, but fuck off.”
Public Image – Where it all began. Wobble’s simple bassline opens this thrilling post-punk classic and drives the whole track.
Ruinlust – The highlight of the ambient/spoken word disc. Sexy funk collaboration with Julie ‘LoneLady’ Campbell from 2011 album Psychic Life.
Hit Me – 1995 trip hop track laced with bongos and sleazy saxophone played by Pharaoh Sanders of Funkadelic.
Buddha Of Compassion – Soaring, chilled-out Buddhist dance pop from 2006.
How Much Are They? – Catchy disco dub track from 1980.
Bomba – Spanish-infused dub tune from 1991.
Reggae Parts The Sea – 2006 track featuring Indian vocals and tabla over a dub bassline.
The Good, The Bad & The Ugly Theme – reggae version of Ennio Morricone’s famous music.
Divine Mother – Eleven-minute ambient solo track from 1995.
Merry Go Round – The new single. Radio-friendly psychedelic dance pop.
First published in Sabotage Times, June 2015
Membranes – Dark Matter/Dark Energy
The Membranes were at the most abrasive end of the post-punk spectrum, but they always managed to keep it interesting and diverse as well as just loud. Formed by John Robb in Blackpool in 1977, they were prolific throughout the 80s, getting lots of critical acclaim, gathering devoted fans and influencing bands like Sonic Youth, Big Black, My Bloody Valentine and The Vaccines before splitting up in 1990. They’ve just released their seventh album, Dark Matter/Dark Energy, their first since 1989.
You might know John Robb, singer and creative force behind The Membranes, whether you realise it or not. He’s a regular talking head on shit culture shows like I Love the 1980s. He’s the one with the gravelly voice and the Mohican that, these days, owes as much to a receding hairline as to punk sensibilities. After The Membranes finished he founded a couple of other, less prominent bands, before becoming a successful music journalist, author and manager.
The band has been reuniting for occasional gigs for the past few years but, in what seems like a deeply improbable move, a conversation Robb had with Joe Incandela, head of the CERN project (the vaguely sinister organisation behind the Large Hadron Collider) inspired him to create a concept album about the universe with the rest of The Membranes. Dark Matter/Dark Energy is the result, and even more improbably, it’s excellent.
The band have consciously avoided rehashing their eighties sound, although the old aggression is still there, tempered by moments of introspection and melancholy and a range of musical styles. The album opens noisily with the cacophonous, gothic rock of The Universe Explodes Into A Billion Photons Of Pure White Light. The track builds slowly into an explosive crescendo, like a sonic Big Bang. Next up is one of the highlights of the album, Do The Supernova, a high tempo, industrial garage tune which owes a debt to the Pixies (for the title at least) and Elvis, for the lyrics (‘One for the money, two for the show…’). The choruses combine scratchy guitars, one note basslines and odd percussion before a drum roll launches the glorious punk chorus.
21st Century Man has a central riff reminiscent of Metallica’s One, while Robb’s vocals sound like Nick Cave singing Mark E. Smith at his most pissed off – ‘I’m an unapologetic, middle-aged, fucked up, 21st century man’. The album then quietens down with Money is Dust, a driving, atmospheric piece infused with threatening wah-wah guitars. It’s nice enough, but it’s eight minutes long and it never really goes anywhere.
The Multiverse Suite sees the band going full-on Pink Floyd, with a sample of Joe Incandela explaining dark matter theory over an orchestra-tuning-up soundscape. This is followed by the dirty, fuzzed-up funk of Space Junk. Angular, slashing guitars play over a hip hop beat as Robb rails against the debris mankind has left orbiting Earth. The middle eight sounds like R2D2 with Tourette’s and it’s one of the best tracks on the album.
Dark Matter is a slow building psychedelic tune, with dub bass, piano lines, electrified voices and snippets of astronaut conversation – more prog rock than punk rock, but it’s not out of place. If You Enter The Arena, You Got To Be Prepared To Deal With The Lions gets noisy again and it’s another highlight. It’s reminiscent of Fugazi at their best but the guitars could have been played by Steve Albini in his mid-80s prime.
In The Graveyard is a nine-minute dub track with maniacal vocals and lyrics concerning death – which is as unsettling as it sounds – while Magic Eye (To See The Sky) is an acoustic folk odyssey about the power of the telescope – which isn’t anywhere near as shit as it sounds. 5776 (The Breathing Song) is more dub bass, rhythmic panting, strings and a return of the electrified, robot voice from earlier combined to make a very unorthodox love song. Hail to the Lovers is an exciting piece of surf-style garage punk and the album closes with the epic Dark Energy and the slightly anticlimactic Hum of the Universe.
Dark Matter/Dark Energy is a concept album about space by a long dormant band, trying their hand at creating music together for the first time in over a quarter of a century. It really ought to have been a massive mistake, but it’s actually a fine album – atmospheric, exhilarating, expansive and original. The Membranes have moved on musically while playing to their strengths and it’s good to have them back.
First published in Sabotage Times, June 2015
Creation Records: Artifact – The Dawn Of Creation Records ’83 – ’85
Alan McGee launched Creation Records with a small ad in Melody Maker – ‘Creation Records seeks pop groups with fantastic songs and a hatred for the current pop scene…’ McGee was a psychotically driven character who’d relocated to London from Glasgow in an effort to avoid the life of drudgery experienced by his violent father and become a pop star. When his band, The Laughing Apple fizzled out after a couple of self-released singles he tried his hand at running clubs and in 1983 The Living Room, essentially a night offering four indie or unsigned bands in the upstairs room of a pub, provided something unique in the capital and took off in a big way. McGee used the profits from this venture to start putting out records, largely by bands who were regulars at The Living Room, and Creation was born.
Creation Artifact: The Dawn of Creation Records ’83 – ’85 is a beautifully packaged, five-CD collection exhaustively documenting the first couple of years of the label. Discs one and two contain the first singles and B-sides released on the label in that time while disc three is composed of rarities and album tracks. Disc four is made up of demos, most of which are previously unissued, while the final CD is of BBC sessions.
McGee’s concept for the label was ‘the punk spirit and the melodies of 60s psychedelic pop’, which largely describes the content of this collection and, 20 years later would make Creation the perfect home for Oasis. The Creation sound is typified by The Pastels, a massively influential band who sounded something like Jilted John singing Velvet Underground. Their entire Creation output of eight songs (one 7-inch, two 12-inches) is included here, the pick of which is the trippy, kaleidoscopic B-side Baby Honey. The Jasmine Minks are another archetypal Creation band of the period and their first singles, along with album tracks, demos and two live tracks are in this collection. This band’s energy and melodies might have made them stars ten years later in the Britpop era and the breezy, punk-pop of tracks like Think!, Black & Blue and The Thirty Second Set Up stand out today. The Bodines with God Bless, The Loft’s Lonely Street and Up the Hill and Down the Slope and Meat Whiplash with the classic Don’t Slip Up are among the other highlights.
Some bands in this compilation stray further from the Creation template, from the avant-garde noise of Five Go Down To The Sea to The X-Men’s sleazy brand of psychobilly – their Do The Ghost and The Witch (from a John Peel session) are fast, raucous fun. The Moodists were an Australian band who played a Birthday Party-tinged blues, exemplified by Justice and Money Too and Other Man from their Peel session. There’s pure Jefferson Airplane- style psychedelia from Revolving Paint Dream with Flowers In The Sky and In The Afternoon, both of which are great tunes. McGee’s own Biff, Bang, Pow! also dabble in psychedelia and are understandably well-represented in Artifact. They’re often reminiscent of The Byrds, especially on The Chocolate Elephant Man, though the funky, fast-paced, harmonica-infused instrumental Waterbomb is the best of their many tracks featured here.
Maybe the least Creation-like of all the acts featured is The Legend! (his exclamation mark). The Legend! was Jerry Thackray, a friend of Alan McGee’s with whom he’d previously written a fanzine and started a club. McGee gave him his ironic stage name and played drums on his first single ’73 in ’83 which became the very first Creation release. A contemporary review in the fanzine Jamming described it as ‘totally worthless’, which is an accurate assessment. McGee himself described it in his autobiography as ‘fucking awful’, but ‘at the time I was shocked that people didn’t think it was a work of genius’. Unfortunately, there are several other examples of The Legend!’s work on this compilation and every one of them is crap – unconvincingly ranted, punk-poetry drivel – but at least none of them last very long. Admittedly, this analysis takes the songs out of context and it’s hard to tell how seriously The Legend! was taking himself . Apparently his on-stage acapella slaughtering of contemporary hits were very popular with The Living Room crowd and he continued to release music on John Robb’s Vinyl Drip label after he’d left Creation.
Two Creation bands from this era went on to much bigger things and their first releases are included in Creation Artifact. The Jesus and Mary Chain released just one single with Creation before they became too big for the label and Alan McGee had to content himself with just being their manager. He acted as their answer to Malcom McLaren in the early days, ramping up the hype around them and causing riots and major violence at gigs. Manager and band seemed to be made for each other, but during their astonishing early success, McGee claims that William Reid always seemed ‘really annoyed we were imposing on his life of being a hermit in East Kilbride’. Upside Down is a feedback-drenched classic which became a huge hit for the band and raised the profile of Creation massively. This and it’s B-side, Vegetable Man took the punk spirit/60s pop ethos to a whole new level.
It was Bobby Gillespie who’d brought The Mary Chain to McGee’s attention and he became their drummer (playing one floor tom and one snare, standing up). Despite the band’s success, he left shortly after the release of the brilliant debut album Psychocandy to concentrate on the band he’d fronted since 1982, Primal Scream. Their first recordings, All Fall Down and It Happens were in the same jangly guitar and androgynous vocals style of Velocity Girl, the ultimate C86 song, which came out a year later. They alienated many of their fans by later switching to a hard rock style for their second album, before embracing acid-house and finding massive commercial and critical success with their third LP, Screamadelica in 1991. Gillespie was a huge influence on Creation in its early years as a musician, unofficial A&R man and printer of their labels through his day job in Glasgow.
Creation Records was founded on big personalities with a love for music and the determination to keep offering a real alternative to what they heard and hated in the mainstream. Some, like Gillespie and Neil Innes of Primal Scream and the Mary Chain’s Reid brothers became big successes and took pop music in new and interesting directions. The Legend!, going by his real name of Jerry Thackray and later by the pseudonym Everett True, became one of the most divisive, antagonistic and brilliant music journalists of his generation, writing for both NME and Melody Maker. And Alan McGee, the main driving force behind the label used his gift for leading the zeitgeist to keep unearthing brilliant bands and creating hype around them. Without people like these, whose first forays into music are recorded on Creation Artifact: The Dawn of Creation Records, some of the best bands of the 80s and 90s – My Bloody Valentine, Swervedriver, Teenage Fanclub, Super Furry Animals, House of Love- might have remained underground.
First published in Sabotage Times, October 2015
Still In A Dream: A Story Of Shoegaze 1988- 1995
In the late 1980s a sub-genre of UK indie music emerged, characterised by layered, effects-heavy guitars, repetition, subdued vocals and a noisy but unaggressive attitude. The sound became increasingly popular until 1992 when the music press gave it the derogatory name ‘shoegaze’ and it fell rapidly out of style. Still in A Dream is an exhaustive five-disc collection of tracks documenting the full life of this short-lived scene.
The sound of shoegaze took its influences variously from Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Husker Du, The Cure, The Smiths, My Bloody Valentine and The Cocteau Twins. Although The Cocteau Twins had been around for a decade before the shoegaze scene got going, they’re closely associated with it because the band and the scene reached a height of popularity at the same time. Cherry –Coloured Funk from 1990 is included on Still in a Dream and it’s a typical example of their dreamy, psychedelic noisescape. This sound, along with Elizabeth Frazer’s beautiful ethereal vocals, was approximated by many of the more ambient shoegaze acts and guitarist Robin Guthrie had a more direct influence on the emerging scene by working as a producer for Lush.
The Jesus & Mary Chain, with their pop melodies buried beneath feedback, were another obvious touchstone for the scene. Their uplifting 1990 release Rollercoaster comes across like a punk Mr Tambourine Man and, entertaining as it is, its inclusion only really makes sense chronologically, since by this time they’d moved in a more conventional pop direction which doesn’t quite sit with the rest of this collection.
Bands like Spacemen 3, The Telescopes and Loop were playing a new brand of psychedelia in the late-80s, and while none of these bands were ever identified as part of the shoegaze scene, their experimentations with repetition and huge, distinctive guitar sounds were acknowledged as an influence on it. Spacemen 3’s Hypnotised is included and it’s a timeless, shimmering, two-chord blues classic that’s guaranteed to improve your mood, while The Telescopes’ Precious Little is stop-start, sneering, space rock. Loop’s electrifying Arc-Lite is also here, featuring a slashing, amped up riff, repeated over freak out drums to mesmeric effect.
It’s unfortunate that the biggest single influence and instigators of the shoegaze scene are absent from this collection. My Bloody Valentine could be powerful and exhilarating, gorgeously melodic or a combination of both. They were completely original and spawned a great many imitators. A history of the shoegaze scene feels a little incomplete without something from them, though, in truth, pigeonholing MBV as shoegaze is like classifying The Beatles as Mersey Beat – ultimately they were much bigger than the scene that they most obviously inspired.
When shoegaze was at its most popular in the early 90s, its two biggest stars were Lush and Ride. Both were great bands and each band could justifiably have had several songs included here; the two selections that are included are excellent. Lush’s gorgeous De-Luxe is an edgy, jangly pop song with a driving beat, soaring harmonies and vivid lyrics, while Ride’s Drive Blind, is a rousing gothic slab of noise from their debut EP. These two exhilarating songs exemplify what excited people about this new style of music and both Ride and Lush released several EPs with songs of equivalent quality at the time.
At a lower level, Chapterhouse were another mainstay of the scene – a band who infamously followed Nirvana at the 1991 Reading Festival. This being just a few weeks before the release of Nevermind, a good percentage of the crowd was already wearing ‘corporate whore’ t-shirts. Predictably, Chapterhouse’s atmospheric drone and subdued stage presence didn’t measure up too well, giving an early pointer as to where musical fashion was heading. Their Falling Down is included here, and it’s an atypically upbeat, wah-wah-driven baggy tune.
Among the other acts from the early shoegaze scene with tracks included here The Boo Radleys, with their huge anthem Kaleidoscope, the ultra-mellow Slowdive by Slowdive, Waiting for the Angels by The Darkside and the brilliant drumbeat-driven psychedelic rock of Suzanne by Moose.
Melody Maker tried to convince its readers that Curve would be massive back in 1991. The duo got the cover of the magazine after only a couple of EPs, the first of which was made single of the week. Still in a Dream features Ten Little Girls from that EP, and it’s hard to see what the fuss was about, sounding as it does like a lightweight prototype for Garbage.
Slightly stretching the shoegaze definition but included anyway are Th’ Faith Healers with the amazing Gorgeous Blue Flower In My Garden, a mad, folky discordant, punk nursery rhyme. Swervedriver were always identified with the scene because of their Oxford roots rather than their swirling, alt-rock sound but their Rave Down fits into the collection quite nicely.
There are plenty of tracks from more obscure bands from the early 90s which are well worth discovering. Aruca by Medicine starts off as pure Butthole Surfers-style noise before giving way to a blissed-out, acid house drone. Sugar Your Mind by Swallow is a hypnotic, laid-back pysch-pop song, Spooky Vibes by Blind Mr Jones is ambient pop with a soaring flute hook and Babysbreath by Loveliescrushing is a lovely, shimmering noisescape.
Tellingly, highlights from later on in the scene tend to come from America where the scene peaked much later, comfortably occupying space alongside grunge. Mercury Rev’s Bronx Cheer is a fabulous song, as is the MBV-like Orange Creamsickle by Astrobite. Luna’s 23 Minutes in Brussels is sensational; like Carlos Santana guesting on a Spiritualized track. The Hinnies have been described as a cross between The Pixies and The Beach Boys, which seems accurate judging by the laid-back psychedelic pop of Gong.
There are great songs throughout this collection that will stand up to repeated playing, but it also shows that the shoegaze movement was never as cohesive as the music press wanted us to believe. There was a brief period in which a sonic template involving huge, effects-heavy guitar sounds was de rigueur and bands experimented with this sound to varying degrees and with varying degrees of success.
In the early ‘90s the music press wielded the influence to conjure up a scene from something this slight and they also had the power to wreck it. The term shoegazing was a mocking reference to the perceived motionlessness of these bands on stage. The implication was that they were uninteresting, especially when compared with the high intensity performances of Mudhoney, Tad, Nirvana et al. Maybe the scene lacked controversial personalities too – there were no car-crash relationships, petty rivalries or high profile casualties, just mutual support and respect. It must have been easier for the headline-writers of the time if their rock stars were living their lurid, hedonistic fantasies for them. For whatever reason, from 1992 reviews for bands identified as part of the shoegaze scene were suddenly overwhelmingly bad.
Most of the bands featured here fizzled out quickly, but some like The Boo Radleys and, remarkably, given their status as pillars of the scene, Lush managed to reinvent themselves to find success as Britpop acts, playing much less interesting and inventive music (compare Kaleidoscope to Wake Up Boo, for example).
Other bands like Swervedriver and Spacemen 3 offshoots Spiritualized and Spectrum, had managed to keep enough distance from the scene at its height not to be tainted when it all went sour and continued relatively unscathed.
The biggest casualties were Ride. They were a talented group but they were obliged to drastically change their sound to move with the times and they lost their way. They first switched to psychedelic rock then veered towards hard rock before giving up completely, tainted by association with a scene that had been deemed obsolete.
Still In A Dream is a thorough document of this short-lived scene, from its early stirrings, through its peak years and its last twitches. The scene produced no huge stars but its leading lights made some great and genuinely original records. This collection shows that its minor players could hit the heights too. As a sub-genre of British indie it was way more forward thinking and innovative than the Britpop scene that dominated the rest of the ‘90s and it could be time to reassess the music of that decade and rediscover some its forgotten highlights.
First published in Sabotage Times, January 2016
Post-Punk Electronica & Neo-Psychedelia: Close To The Noise Floor & Another Splash Of Colour
The post-punk era saw new artists emerge all over Britain, inspired by the DIY ethos and attitude of punk. Having missed the boat as far as rudimentary three-chord guitar rock was concerned, they embraced other influences – dance, dub, jazz, avant-garde etc. – and created sub-genres which would set the template for much of the alternative music scene for decades to come.
Two newly released collections document the early days of two of these sub-genres. Close To The Noise Floor showcases the pioneers of underground electronica in the late-70s and early-80s, while Another Splash Of Colour covers neo-psychedelia from 1980 to 1985.
In the sleeve notes of Close To The Noise Floor, journalist Dave Henderson, who covered the ‘miniscule phenomenon’ of the early electronic music scene describes it as ‘a decidedly awkward generation’ who were ‘too lacking in confidence to get on stage and play three chords, but they can sit in their bedrooms brooding’. And while they sat in their bedrooms brooding, they fiddled with rudimentary synthesisers, two-tracks, drum machines and samplers and created weird, futuristic music which they released themselves, on a minimal scale.
Opening track Computer Bank by Five Times Of Dust is a good example of this introverted approach. It was made using a cheap analogue drum machine, reel-to-reel tapes, manipulated vocals, an entry-level Casio keyboard and a stylophone by two amateur musicians who collaborated by post. Both collaborators then distributed the results on their own, cassette-only labels; producing about 100 copies in total. Despite its weird inception, obscurity and the decades-old technology used, the funky Computer Bank and the duo’s other contribution to this collection, The Single Off The Album still stand up to repeated listening, for their unique structure, inventive sound and retro appeal.
Colin Potter’s catchy, robotic reggae track I Am Your Shadow is another example of the DIY ethic at work. Trying to emulate multi-track studio recording using domestic technology meant improvising, experimenting and using the equipment to its maximum potential. Potter credits punk and new wave with redefining what was ‘acceptable as music’ and how it could be produced and disseminated. Instant Automatons were a bunch of teenagers using the resources of their Lincolnshire grammar school’s physics lab to produce ‘experimental soundscapes’ and ‘spaceship taking off rackets’. Their New Muzak is also quite tuneful and has a laid-back Fall feel to it.
Several of the more ambient tracks in the collection are reminiscent of soundtracks to sci-fi films – Zorch’s Adrenalin, Sea Of Tranquillity by Ron Berry, Embryo by Mark Shreeve and DC3’s Eco Beat among others – while the unsettling Fractured Smile by Inter City Static with its dramatic and insistent Space Invaders beat is more like the score to a video nasty.
Technology changes so quickly in electronic music and the available sounds can date horribly, so it’s easy to assume that the older music in the genre won’t have aged well at all. But because this music had no roots, it had no rulebook. There was no musical grammar at this stage of its development – no formula had been established – so listening to it now, you find yourself constantly surprised. Stopping And Starting by Voice of Authority is a fantastic early hip-hop influenced tune while the brilliant Optimum Chant by British Electric Foundation dates from 1979 but would sit comfortably on a present-day Aphex Twin album. Adrian Smith’s gothic Joe Goes To New York sounds like a Cure instrumental and British Standard Unit’s cover of D’ya Think I’m Sexy has a playful, Devo quality.
Not all the artists featured in Close To The Noise Floor stayed in their bedrooms. The Human League’s first single Being Boiled is included and, aside from the fact that they have a proper singer, it has more in common with the dark imagery and threatening sounds of their contemporaries than their later monster hit, Don’t You Want Me? The chorus also sounds a lot like Visage’s Fade To Grey, despite predating it by three years. Throbbing Gristle, an art collective with a side-line in making challenging electronic noise to great critical acclaim are also featured, rightly, with What A Day being one of their less abrasive releases. Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, Eyeless In Gaza and Blancmange are the other bigger names included (British Electric Foundation would also go on to find fame later in the ‘80s as Heaven 17).
At a time when any idiot with an iPad can knock up an album’s worth of EDM in an afternoon, it’s difficult to appreciate how much care, effort and imagination must have gone into the creation of the music collected together on the four discs of Close To The Noise Floor. And despite the technological limitations that the featured artists had to contend with, this collection is wonderfully disparate and consistently entertaining. A punk-inspired revolution was started in bedrooms in provincial towns and spread around the country by mail-ordered cassettes.
Meanwhile, in music venues and provincial clubs at the beginning of the ‘80s, some of the more extroverted children of punk – those who didn’t ‘lack the confidence to get up on stage’ – were also energised by the success of The Clash, The Sex Pistols and The Ramones, but embraced psychedelia in a way that those bands never would.
The new psychedelic scene that emerged as result was originally celebrated on the vinyl compilation, A Splash Of Colour in 1982. That compilation had never been released on CD until now, and Another Splash Of Colour expands it to 64 tracks in a three-disc set, providing a glimpse into a sub-genre that you may not have even realised existed.
All aspects of ‘60s psychedelia was referenced by these bands. The High Tide with Dancing In My Mind, The Earwigs with Keep Your Voice Down and The Prisoners with Strawberries Are Growing In My Garden (And It’s Wintertime) all have a hippie-ish vibe straight from Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco.
Others have more of an English psych sound. Nick Nicely (Hilly Fields), Pink Umbrellas (Raspberry Rainbow) and Purple Hearts (Hazy Darkness…) are reminiscent of The Small Faces while The Times’ I Helped Patrick McGoohan Escape could be by The Kinks. Charlie Harper’s rockabilly Night Of The Jackal is like The Stones’ Fade Away sung by a sedated Iggy. The Beatles are obviously an influence too, with Squire’s No Time Tomorrow and Nick Nicely’s 49 Cigars both sounding like lost Revolver tracks.
Third Eye with Pass Myself, Doctor & The Medics with Barbara Can’t Dance and The Green Telescopes with Two By Two go for the garage rock sound of 13th Floor Elevators or The Seeds while Naz Nomad & The Nightmares (The Damned in disguise) cover I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night) by The Electric Prunes. The Barracudas, who were widely regarded as founder members of the new psychedelia scene and were apparently referred to as “the West Country’s answer to Television” at the time. They have two songs included; Watching The World Go By, which is like a slightly punked-up Byrds tune and Inside Mind, which is more garage rock.
Few people embraced psychedelia and psychedelics more enthusiastically than Julian Cope. After the collapse of his briefly popular band The Teardrop Explodes in 1983 he continued his epic consumption of LSD and began a solo career which saw him frequently compared to Syd Barrett. The brilliant Sunspots from his classic second album Fried is included, and it’s clear from this that the Barrett associations were based on more than just excessive acid consumption; it falls somewhere between Barrett’s Octopus and I Am The Walrus, complete with brass section and flute solo. Early Pink Floyd and Syd Barret’s solo work were an clear influence on many of the acts in this collection, including on Knox (of The Vibrators) whose strangely glam-rock cover version of Barret’s Gigolo Aunt is on the first disc.
Robyn Hitchcock was another important figure in this scene, as a founder member of The Soft Boys and as a solo performer. The Soft Boys’ Only The Stones Remain is one of the standout songs on Another Splash Of Colour. It’s an upbeat and incredibly catchy cross between Bob Dylan and The Fall, at their most playful. Hitchcock’s trippy solo effort It’s A Mystic Trip is also great, with surreal spoken-word verses (“Trevor, come and shave your playmates”), backward guitars and a Small Faces feel. It’s like a (much better) prototype for Blur’s Parklife.
If, like me, you thought that the Hammond organ disappeared between The Doors and Inspiral Carpets you’ll be as surprised as I was to hear it appearing throughout this 80s collection. A Red Light For Greens by Deep Freeze Mice, Do I Have To Be Here by The Way Out, Slow Patience by The Attractions (without Elvis Costello) and Reaching My Head by The Prisoners, among others, all feature one.
The collection is filled with curiosities like the camp, gothic melodrama Brothel In Rosenstrasse by Michael Moorcock’s Deep Fix and the full on Zappa-style freak-out of Endless River by The Brainiac Five. Where Are You? by The Primevals sounds like an early grunge track, Wide Eyed And Electrick by Magic Mushroom Band is like Hawkwind crossed with X-Ray-Spex. Biff Bang Pow’s A Day Out With Jeremy Chester is so psychedelic and buried in effects that the tune can hardly be identified. Nirvana by The Icicle Works could be by Sisters Of Mercy while Waltz Of The Fool by Le Mat is actually a waltz.
The new psychedelia scene was a small, technicolour haven in the drab, grey early-‘80s and Another Splash Of Colour gives a comprehensive feel of what it was like. It’s an entertaining trip back to an obscure sub-genre which might be the missing link between ‘60s subculture and classic indie.
First published in Sabotage Times, May 2016