Monday, 28 April 2008

First breath after a musical coma

I realise my last post must have seemed a tad condescending and prone to generalization. Of course, music magazines do their bit, and I for one have to right away cite one or two that I owe a lot to for introducing me to lots of great music.

In France, Crossroads and, to a lesser extent, Rock & Folk (included mainly for their excellent special edition dedicated to Punk about 5 years ago - otherwise they seem torn between being a French Wire or a French NME, and far too often lean towards the latter) deserve praise. Crossroads' staff's single-minded dedication to celebrate the music they cherish, even if it means disregarding a lot of the mainstream and dramatically reducing their sales, is commendable. They never compromise, and have probably gone a long way towards introducing quite a large number of French people to the best of American roots music that most would never have even noticed otherwise (France has a strangely negative view of The Blues, Country and Folk). Plus, their editor, Christophe Gofette is a truly friendly chap, and always replied to any e-mails I sent him, even though few could have been very interesting. He even printed something I wrote once. Talk about above and beyond the call of duty!

In the UK, I have already mentioned The Wire (check out their recent excellent interview with Gudrun Gut for a brilliant insight into Berlin's underground scene; also their retrospective on Henry Cow was a delight). Mojo also probably deserve a mention, especially for their "special issues", which allow them to cover ground the pursuit of sales and the current dumbing-down of modern music just won't allow most of the time. They're certainly better than the NME and Rolling Stone, and I will be unrelenting in my criticism of those two vapid, lowbrow and simple-minded wads of toilet paper. Not that they care,I guess.

So, the music is out there, and to be honest, it can't be that hard to find if a lazy cunt like me managed. Hell, that book, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, as mainstream as it is (something like 5 Björk albums yet no mention of Neutral Milk Hotel or Godspeed You! Black Emperor! What is the world coming to? I mean, I like Björk but for fuck's sake!) still introduced me to The United States of America's sole, self-titled masterpiece, and it's one of the most out-there pieces of manic psychedelia ever made, so there's proof that you can mix mainstream tastes with a love of all things weird, rare and obscure.

And here's a first message to all you music junkies out there: the nineties and noughties don't suck! Well, of course they don't, but truth be told, they're not even that far behind the seventies and sixties in terms of adventure, innovation and artistic merit. But, surprisingly, you do have to look that much harder.

The nineties and noughties have been defined by very specific genres that appealed to mass audiences. There was the Madchester scene, coupled with Techno, Britain's great rave. Then there was grunge, a last hurrah for middle-class morosity similar to that of eighties goth and cold wave. That was quickly superceded by the all-out party of Brit-pop, which also helped revive Madchester and Techno. And since then it's been all about "Indie" (after a mildly dull pop interlude from 1996-onwards), as well as chart-friendly power-pop (plus r'n'b, dance and hip-hop). Amusingly, although the charts now feature more diversity than probably ever before, the divisions between audiences remains immense. But, that's a discussion for another day.

But, the main interest of the nineties and noughties album (and occasionally singles) charts could be the odd presence of quite random artists like the afore-mentioned Björk, Sigur Ros or Beck, artists that play with genres and styles and deploy singularly idiosynchratic approaches to pop music. Sadly, all have struggled to sustain such adventurousness and Beck in particular seems just tired to me these days, whilst Björk's music gets weaker as it gets weirder. Sigur Ros, meanwhile continue to haunt, but not with the consistency that defined their first masterpiece, Agaetis Byrjun.

So, by now you will have realised my propensity to ramble, and duly browsed away. If you haven't - thanks! The point is that artists like the three above took a pop framework and, taking their inspiration from a lot that went before, moved into new and exciting areas. And somehow were successful commercially on top of doing pretty darn well artisically. For me, this just led me to cast my gaze even further!

The modern pop artist's main problem is always going to be that so much has already been done. Originality is thin on the ground, and hard to find. So, what the best tend to do is elaborate rather than innovate. And it can be just as good. It's actually been the modus operandi since the mid-eighties, when the likes of Cocteau Twins and The Jesus and Mary Chain took the punk structure and turned up the saturation and noise; and pulled back the voices to create a new brand of frenetic rock. That it wasn't really original hardly mattered. It was still new. To my mind, in fact, little of any tangible originality has been made since the early days of synth-pop and industrial music in the late seventies. But it hasn't stopped truly marvelous music being created. And in fact, as things like the CD and then of course the Internet made music that much more available, before long genre boundaries were blurring, more and more sub-genres were appearing, and at the same time more music was being created and more bands were flocking to their different totems. It has now become a gold-mind for people looking for new sounds because, whilst never ground-breaking, music has become more varied. And the digital age has made it easier to make as well, meaning that a minuscule sub-genre such as "dark neo-folk" can include hundreds of bands with easily accessible outputs. A lot will be shite, but there may be a few diamonds in there as well.

So, I could look at things like Grunge and Brit-pop and the rave-rock scene. I could start relaying thoughts on which of the "The" bands is actually the best. There are great things available in the mainstream, from Bloc Party to The Arcade Fire. But I shan't. There are loads of people who have done this better than I ever could. But I might put my two-pennies worth in to sing the praises of the genres and artists and bands that don't quite get quite the same recognition. As the mainstream and the rest became more divided, several genres were thrown up, almost in reaction to the 90s VH1, MTV and NME avalanche. They were called shoegazer, neo-metal, stoner, americana and slowcore, to name just a few, and all to me, even up to 18 years later, sound so different to all that went on back then, and all that goes on right now. Not original, but so satisfying. So, this is my hommage to nearly two decades that many of us rock snobs disregard (I'll get to the 80s later), but that actually contain quite a few not-so-hidden treasures. And so back to 1991. The band is an Irish one that's not U2. The album is a pink slab of hazy, noisy, ethereal guitar rock called Loveless.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

The great rock'n'roll timeline

It's the lazy hobby of every major rock and pop music magazine or show: over the issues and years, they give us a not-that-detailed timeline for the great rock'n'roll history. That's not a bad thing, quite the opposite, but my goodness, talk about pandering to the lowest common denominator!

Basically, the story goes as follows: rock started with Elvis. Shit, most rags will actually start with The Beatles, and then maybe work back to The King. Along with Mr Presley, there might be a few references to Little Richard, Chuck Berry (thanks to the Pulp Fiction soundtrack only) and Jerry Lee Lewis. If you like Fats Domino, Roy Orbison, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran or Del Shannon, forget looking through Mojo, Q or the NME, they just ain't bovvered. The NME don't seem to remember that anything happened before 1977! And anything pre-Oasis is generally only given the most cursory of glances. Still, I promise not to turn this into an anti-NME rant!

So, they let us know that once upon a time when the world was simpler and less exciting there were rock stars who launched the genre on unsuspecting audiences, breaking down cultural and ethnic barriers along the way, before moving on to the juicier artists of the 60s and 70s. If you are VERY lucky, they will make a brief detour to salute the influence of Jazz (only Coltrane, Davis and Parker of course), Country (don't expect anyone more than Johnny Cash and possibly Hank Williams), Blues (brief nod to Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters) and Soul (thanks to the movie -and the same applies to Cash- we get Ray Charles, plus Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding and maybe Aretha). Hardly exhaustive, barely a footnote even. Considering these were the founding pillars of rock music, it seems bizarre. But rotund black men in suits playing lengthy sax solos, or hairy, uncouth country singers from the least fashionable parts of the USA probably just don't have the sheen the NME and co. require of their artists. Cue the grinning Beatles and the sexy Stones.

Of course, the 60s was (were?) the landmark decade in the history of modern music. This is when music became pop (OK, that started a bit in the 50s), and when rock'n'roll became ROCK. It's the decade of psychedelia, blues revival, Brit invasion (and therefore the birth of -blech- Brit-pop), acid folk/folk-rock and the cult of the singer/songrwriter. So, the timeline goes on: Bob Dylan to The Beatles, Beatles to The Rolling Stones (if it's a British mag, you'll get a drive-by mention of The Who, The Kinks and maybe The Yardbirds), Stones to The Byrds, The Byrds to Clapton, Clapton to Hendrix, Hendrix to Pink Floyd (Barrett-era), Pink Floyd to Led Zeppelin and the demise of The Fab Four. Oh, and throw in the Beach Boys somehwere around 1965-66. This is all good, but sure does keep it simple. And yet, I'm not sure many mags will really elaborate on that 60s formula. Some will drop The Hollies and Herman's Hermits into the Brit Invasion chapter (again, only the British rags), yet somehow miss out on the Small Faces, The Moody Blues, Them or The Pretty Things. In the Blues Revival bit you might get a mention for Fleetwood Mac and John Mayall, but mostly it will be all about Cream/Clapton. Psychedelia suffers the most, it's too vague, off-the-wall and adventurous a genre to really appeal to Arctic Monkeys fans, so if you're lucky you'll at best get a quick detour via The Grateful Dead, the Doors and Jefferson Airplane before the journos come screaming back to the more conventional Floyd. And for some reason, Led Zeppelin is ALWAYS held up as the band that dragged us screaming into the post-Beatles rock world. Forget Black Sabbath, Mountain or Free, or the fact that bands were doing far more adventurous stuff YEARS before the New Yardbirds became Led Zep. After all, Led Zeppelin sells. And it's easier to simplify things this way.

And on to the 70s. First, we cry a LOT for departed Jimi, Janis and Jim (maybe not Jim). Then, move on with claims that 1970 or 1971 (depending on the magazine or TV show) was THE YEAR THAT ROCK CHANGED FOREVER (cue images of The Beatles' split and Woodstock - which was in 1969 but who cares?). If you're British, it means things kicked off with Glam (Bolan and Bowie + a dribbling of Elton, Roxy Music, Slade and Gary Glitter - no Cockney Rebel or Mott the Hoople of course, and dream on, Jobriath!), but this little quirk of the British rock scene is completely overlooked if you're from anywhere else. So, cue lots of Prog-rock and Hard rock. The Stones, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Santana, Genesis, more Floyd, more Zeppelin, plus a few tracks from the likes of Yes (although they are VERY unfashionable), Steppenwolf (well, one track, and from the sixties to boot), Free and Blue Oyster Cult ("Don't Fear the Reaper"). Oh, and some more Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.
Then we get to singer/songwriters and country-rock: more Dylan, some James Taylor, Neil Young, CSN, The Eagles, Joan Baez (even though she's crap), Jackson Browne and America (for "Horse with No Name", generally somewhat erroneously derided as a Neil Young rip-off). Plus an occasional walk to the Wild Side to mention Lou Reed.

Then we move on to classic rock (Queen, Springsteen, Tom Petty, Bad Company and Aerosmith), with a bit more Pink Floyd, The Stones and Zeppelin along the way (by now it's really getting silly, and, much as I like those three bands, it's enough to drive you to hatred!) before a massive quantum leap to punk, where, due to epherality of that genre, you actually get quite a large number of bands. The Sex Pistols and The Clash get precedence, of course (are they the Led Zep and Pink Floyd of the Punk world??), but most journos are able to cram in Buzzcocks, The Jam, The Ramones, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Talking Heads as well. And the death of Sid Vicious somehow always contrives to wrap up the decade two years early, after a quick detour at some point (either in 1976 or 1979) via the world of disco. Especially in Britain, where we do love Abba.

The common factor in all this? Most of these bands sold. LOTS. And it's doubly frustrating because the seventies were the most musically fertile years in rock history. I'm not even talking about the obscure wonders hiding behind the cobwebs of seventies rock, such as the supreme Acid-folk of Comus or Simon Finnn. But what about Gene Clark and Gram Parsons, two singer/songwriters whose fusion of country, rock, folk and blues laid the groundwork for so much of the Americana and Alt-country scenes of the next two decades? Or Townes Van Zandt, the ultimate cult songwriter poet, an influence on stars like Steve Earle or Kaith Urban? Or Television, the premier New York punk band, whose arty, jangly guitar rock resonates in the music of the likes of The Strokes and Kings of Leon? Or Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle, cult bands who launched the industrial genre? Or Mott the Hoople, surely the best of all the glam rock bands, bar Roxy Music? Or (and I promise this is it!) Van der Graaf Generator, surely the most exciting and genre-defying of all the prog bands, and the band that most successfully melded art and rock? Most of all, the complete lack of any mention of the superbly innovative early seventies German rock (aka. Krautrock), a massive influence on nearly every alt-rock and avant-garde artist and band since, from Brian Eno to PiL, Battles to Wilco? I could go on for a while (I promise I won't!), listing bands who never get more than a foot-note at best in most rock histories yet who deserve more, if only for their influence.

And so on to the 80s. First comes electro-pop, with a nice little look back to salute Kraftwerk (but forget Tangerine Dream), before, after sliding briefly past post-punk and New Wave (cursory mentions of PiL, Blondie, Talking Heads again and maybe gang of Four if you're lucky), and a couple more mentions of Pink FLoyd (for the insipid The Wall) and Bruce Springsteen, we get into the world of MTV and gross, mass-produced pop. Aside from The Cure, U2 and Echo and The Bunnymen, it's mostly sludge, from Madonna to Prince, via Michael Jackson, Phil Collins, Cyndi Lauper and Elton John. Geez, thank fuck for Kate Bush, The Smiths and Eurythmics! And then onto hair metal, to collective groans! Despite the great number of truly stunning music made during the eighties (can I just cite Killing Joke, The The, Replacements, Japan, The Human League, David Sylvian, Talk Talk and Sonic Youth?), it's no surprise it is so much-maligned if THIS is what most people were getting exposed to during the satellite TV boom.

The nineties were even more straight-forward: the music rags got lazier in their pursuit of sales, and it seems as if all of them look at 1993 as the year zero of rock, rather than the continuation that it actually was. So we get, in order, Grunge, Brit-pop, more Pop (Boy Bands, Girl Divas and Coldplay) and the new rock of the last ten years. Radiohead have replaced Pink Floyd as the thinking student's band, whilst Led Zeppelin's metal was replaced by Oasis' rip-off rock. And so it continues ad-infinitum. The words "progressive" and "arty" have become taboo, dance is back in fashion, as well as chronic stupidity it sometimes seems (I mean, Brit-pop was all about raves, booze, cigarettes and football, hardly mind-blowing stuff), and most band names start with "The". Plus, every month the NME picks a new "best band in the world", each time sounding just like the previous month's. And most sounding like a blend of The Smiths, Gang of Four and The Stones.
As usual, there have been a whole host of great bands and artists to have graced our ears since 1989, some mainstream (I'm thinking Suede, The Flaming Lips, Jeff Buckley, Alice in Chains, Bloc Party, Interpol and The Manic Street Preachers, among others), some not (Bardo Pond, Jesse Sykes, Fushitsusha, Tenhi, Jesu, Red House Painters, etc.), but the sheer weight of dogma and fashion victimisation is exhausting.

So, this is my railing against the mass. A little look at some alternatives to this set timeline, and the set road most journalists are forcing to embark upon. Rather than the enforced "R'nR-to-Beatles-to-Brit invasion-to-blues rock-to-country rock-to prog-to-heavy metal-to-glam-to-stadium rock-to-electro-to-pop-to grunge-to-Britpop-to-new rock" route, let's head to the ditch. I'm gonna look at and pay hommage to some obscure-to-unknown masterpieces, as well as some great albums by bands that hit the big time only to be left by the wayside of popular acclaim in recent years. Time to bring back Rock's blank generations...

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Into the realm of sound and beauty

"Music is my junk", the late, great Steve Marriott (right) once said. This sums up the rock'n'roll obsession almost perfectly. Drugs and music, going hand-in-hand with love and dependance. Simon Napier-Bell couldn't have put it better (or more succinctly!).

Of course, this extends beyond rock'n'roll. Jazz, folk, blues, soul, electro... you name it, you will find its fair share of obsessives and "junkies". But rock'n'roll remains the glue, for no other genre has successfully melded so many styles and genres, nor managed to re-invent itself so tirelessly.

I won't go into a massive autobiography, but music has always been my life, from dancing to Michael Jackson as a kid, to discovering my parents' 60s and 70s rock records, to my more recent introduction to the netherworlds of punk, post-punk, avant-garde and free-jazz, via glam, blues, neo-folk, grunge, new wave, electronica and more. And the culmination has been discovering krautrock, possibly the most beautiful musical style ever!

But I get ahead of myself. I want to use this modest blog as a means to shed light on music that quite often doesn't get the right look in, praise, or even notice for that matter. I may well approach some better know stuff from time to time (if only to try to rehabilitate some bands and artists that have got a bad rap over the years - ELP and Grand Funk Railroad anyone?), but the main focus will be on those acts that toiled away in the shadows of the Led Zeppelins, Pink Floyds, Bob Dylans and Aretha Franklins of this world, producing some simply mind-blowing music and art along the way.

I've already made some steps towards this, through my ever-evolving Rateyourmusic lists:
But one can always do more, and this space will hopefully give me room to blab a bit more, and centralize my various thoughts a bit. Plus, I get to put a little bit more of myself into this, so be prepared for the occasional musing on minority and gay rights, politics, my hatred of British tabloids, cinema, the arts, city life or the state of the music industry. Such is the wonder of the Web, anyone can find their voice. Not sure who will be listening -or rather reading-, but as one of my idols used to say all the time: "He who dares, wins, Rodney". God knows what winning would mean here, but it's a nice thought.

As a closer to this little introduction (and before I go and have a good think on which album/artist/rant I want to start on), I would like to thank and recommend a few sources for the endless musical joy they have brought me. A lot of great music is out there, away from most ears, and one or two sources have been instrumental in bringing it closer to mine own.

First up has to be the indefatigable Julian Cope who, through his two massive rock books Krautrocksampler and Japrocksampler, introduced me to a goldmine of obscure (and not so obscure) rock gems from two of the most fertile music countries of all time: Germany and Japan. On top of that, his superb website,, remains an invaluable source of reviews, discussions and articles dedicated to all music that dares to push back boundaries and provoke the senses. It is an essential pit-stop for any lover of extreme, trippy or adventurous music, and also touches on the likes of Neil Young, King Crimson, Black Sabbath, Funkadelic and Soft Machine. I think the word is comprehensive.

Equally so is, a fantastic community for music-lovers. Any album by any band, big or small, is there, to be praised or shot down by hoards of ravenous "junkies" like me.

Then there's The Wire magazine's list of "Albums that changed the world while no-one was listening". Look it up. No music list has been better named, and the lads and ladies at The Wire have exquisite taste.

Finally, thanks must go to Steve Stapleton of Nurse With Wound, who compiled a list ( of the best obscure and unsung albums ever made for the release of their 1979 magnum opus Chance Meeting on a Dissecting table of a Sewing Machine and an Umbrella. Not only is the album a must-have (and very rare today), the "Nurse with Wound list" is a great encyclopedia of weird, mysterious and underappreciated gems. I could also mention Stapleton's good friend David Tibet, of Current 93 fame, who has dedicated more than a little energy to getting a release on CD for the likes of Jan Dukes de Grey's masterpiece Mice and Rats in the Loft and, especially, Pass the Distance by Simon Finn, loved so much by Tibet that he released it on his own label! Thanks to all these great people and sources for enriching my life.

And so onwards, for my own contribution. If it'll help...