Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Ray Reagan & the Rayguns (2009)


You may recall Stan Batcow from such acts as the Membranes, Howl in the Typewriter, Ceramic Hobs, Blunt Instrument, and the Def-A-Kators, but if not, here's another unfamiliar pie in which he's had fingers, a band which played gigs, garnered fancy-pants record company interest, and accordingly went into the studio at some point during the eighties; at which point the tale fizzles into either thin air or is absorbed into one of the other four-million bands in which the Batcow has been involved over the years. The story behind this collection is that it comprises those studio recordings, arguably those vintage studio recordings, dug out of a box in the attic and finally whipped into some sort of shape.

I have to admit, upon first listen it sounded a lot like just another Pumf record. Stan has a fairly distinctive sound and songwriting style, which I suppose can be a hindrance as much as a recommendation; but the strengths of the album really begin to come through after a couple of spins, once it's obvious that this isn't quite just another Pumf release. I think the point at which it clicked for me was where I suddenly realised how much Ray Reagan & the Rayguns remind me of Hawkwind - particularly on the chugging Dopamine, although a faintly crusty festival vibe informs the enterprise as a whole. I'd say it reminds me of the Levellers in places, except I never liked the Levellers, and this is better, and presumably predates them by a couple of years; which seems particularly pronounced on Salt And Pepper, a thoroughly breezy account of getting raided by the pigs, country tinged, and so fucking catchy you'd swear you'd heard it somewhere before.

After about the fifth play it occurs to me that this might even be the best thing ever released on the Pumf label. It seems to represent all the strengths of those involved, not least being Stan Batcow as Ray Reagan, woven into something much bigger than the sum of its bits, and which doesn't quite sound like anything else after all. It's of its time, I suppose, with touches of pub rock and maybe the Stranglers somewhere in there, and even passages of cod reggae which manage to not sound fucking ridiculous; and there's a wonderful Hammond organ, or something of that kind. With a bigger, more expensive production - maybe from Clive Langer or whoever it was used to work on those Elvis Costello albums - this could have been massive, which I suppose potentially makes it a lost classic.

I sometimes wonder if Stan Batcow doesn't release too much, spreading himself too thin in certain respects, so it's nice to be reminded of what he can come up with when he's firing on all four cylinders.

On sale here, although you may have to root around for a bit.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Toyah - The Blue Meaning (1980)


I fancied Toyah something rotten when I was at school*, knowing her mainly as the punky presenter of Look! Hear!, a Birmingham based yoots programme featuring weekly performances by local acts such as the Neon Hearts, Ruby Turner, and others. Then, following her turning up on an episode of Shoestring, I realised she also had a band so I made my own Toyah badge using Humbrol enamel paints, copying the logo out of Smash Hits. Then, when I finally heard the actual music, it was okay, but somehow wasn't quite so amazing as I felt certain it would be. I mean, it was all right, but, well - you know...

I never heard The Blue Meaning at the time, having drifted away by that point, so I'm only just hearing it now, and incredibly - against all expectation - a couple of plays in and it's actually pretty fucking great. To backtrack, I picked it up as part of a double disc package along with Sheep Farming in Barnet, the first album, but not really an album seeing as it was just a collection of EPs and singles. Sheep Farming in Barnet was mostly the stuff I heard which left me underwhelmed, even at the age of fourteen. Neon Womb was great of course, and Danced and Our Movie, but once you're past those, it all blends into one and the individual tracks really don't work together as an album. She has a great voice, but nevertheless rather than sing she started out overacting to the music, like a sexier William Shatner - whoops, whistles, comedy John Major voices, all manner of funny noises - the kind of sounds which traditionally accompany spooky expressions of surprise made as though trying to convince the audience that you really are subject to the influence of dark forces. Similarly the music of that first handful of discs seems to be some prog band's idea of punk, or at least - cough cough - new wave; so the enterprise steers perilously close to resembling rock opera. I know that doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing every single time...

Anyway, I guess once she'd got it out of her system with the stuff on Sheep Farming, whatever it was, The Blue Meaning really comes together as sounding very much like an album rather than a series of weird squeaking noises bearing no particular relation to each other. She's reigned in the overacting, developed a convincingly pseudo-operatic bellow, and the music rocks pretty darn hard, like it really wishes it had been produced by Tony Visconti. In fact I had to look at the sleeve to check that it wasn't, and I can easily imagine Next Day-era Bowie vocalising over some of this stuff. It's not punk, and never really was, and as has been pointed out from time to time, lyrically it's mostly pseudo-mystical horseshit about pyramids, crystal balls, and sphinxes: it's a self-involved teenage girl spending five hours putting on her make-up, making it look as weird as possible just so she can pull a spooky face and make you think she's deep and mysterious; but fuck it - you know all those Beach Boys records? They were just about cars and girls, most of them! Honest! If you've somehow mistaken The Blue Meaning for St. Paul's letters to the Galatians, then you're probably missing the point. I know how these days we're all busily declaring that everything from the eighties was tittersomely brilliant, at least now that we don't actually have to dress up in any of that shit, but The Blue Meaning is a real cracker of a debut album.

*: I recently discovered that the children's show Teletubbies was filmed on the farm upon which I grew up as a child, and of course Toyah was the voice of Teletubbies. I suppose, it might be a coincidence.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

David Bowie - No Plan (2017)


What's the possibility of my being able to write anything useful or meaningful about this? Minimal, I'd say, but fuck it - let's see what comes out...

It's been a year since he went and it still feels wrong, or at least unnecessarily weird - not least with that whole idea of Bowie having been the glue holding the universe together, which is why it's all turned to shit since and we've got fucking Wotsits Hitler running the show; and listening to No Plan facilitates my appreciation of how his being gorn still doesn't seem to make sense. Here are four tracks recorded while he was in the process of dying - as are we all, I suppose - one from
Blackstar, and three I've never heard, which I guess must be the last things he recorded and which failed to appear during his lifetime. The new material feels very much part of the album and the direction it took, sombre without necessarily sounding depressive, overtly jazzy, and somehow seeming both luxuriously lush and yet a fucking tough listen at the same time.

I don't want to get too bogged down in what it all means, because that's why you listen to the thing so there probably isn't anything I can say which is worth saying; but the crucial point is that, like Blackstar, the record does its job, and does it exceptionally well, and at least as well as any of Bowie's former glories. When I Met You is, I suppose, the last new Bowie song I will ever hear, and it feels like he knew it in so much as that it's kind of up, almost as though our man had grown tired of cataloguing the minutiae of his own impending demise.

See - I told you it'd be horseshit.

Just listen to the record.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Wrangler - LA Spark (2014)


There's a new one out of course, but having grasped the possibility of someone from Cabaret Voltaire still doing something worth listening to, I realised I should probably catch up with this one first. Wrangler features Stephen Mallinder, but probably shouldn't be regarded as Son of Cabaret Voltaire given the patently significant involvement of Ben Edwards and Phil Winter, as expressed in the predominance of vintage analogue synthesisers, or just proper synthesisers if you prefer. That said, Mallinder's characteristic mumbling growl is pretty distinctive, and musically it's very much a groove vaguely in the tradition of The Crackdown - that same sort of pulsing James Brown workout with sequencers popping away left, right and centre. Weirdly, for a record which sounds like it doesn't even make use of anything digital, let alone sampling technology, for something which sounds very much triggered and plumbed in and even seems to utilise what I'd swear is a spring-line reverb, LA Spark manages to sound surprisingly new and squeaky - fresh even. Aside from those already mentioned above, I was occasionally reminded of Kraftwerk back when they resembled Open University lecturers - which is odd given how Florian and the lads weren't particularly electronic back then - but Wrangler otherwise very much resembles its own animal - not even the electronic equivalent of the rockabilly revival I was half anticipating. Not only is there yet life in the old dog, but this might even be one of the best things with which Mallinder has been involved - which is eye opening considering how he doesn't appear to have aged since about 1985; and that the other bloke is now reduced to solo karaoke performances as Cabaret Voltaire, which strikes me as extremely poor form, but never mind.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Hard Corps - Metal + Flesh (1990)


The nostalgia industry really is bollocks, particularly since the eighties slipped back into territory viable for excavation. Slap this one on the deck and you might envision yoots throwing shapes in pastel clothes whilst declaring Metal + Flesh to be the most eighties thing evah with all its gated snares and octopads; but it isn't because the eighties, if you take the trouble to look closely, was actually mostly Dire Straits and nobody breaking Matthew Wilder's stride, and David Christie saddling up, and Karel fucking Fialka. It was shite, which is why Hard Corps sounded so amazing.

Whilst bands incorporating three blokes with synths may not have been particularly thin on the ground at the time, Hard Corps distinguished themselves by doing it better than just about everyone else and carving out their own identity at least a year or two ahead of the curve. It also helped that they really did sound fucking hard, kind of like what Portion Control probably aspired to with a drum machine that kicks you in the head as much as it shoves you out onto the floor; but instead of pretending to play army on the back of that crushing rhythm, Hard Corps built up a darkly layered sensuality from sombre melodies and the late Regine Fetet's heavily accented voice; so there are all sorts of forces pulling against one another in this music - dark, sexy, clubby, sad, solitary, icy, and yet somehow euphoric.

They sounded like one of those best kept secrets when I first heard them. It felt like a privilege to come across the occasional twelve in some neglected corner of the record shop - must have got there by accident and now it's mine! This is my fucking music. No-one else in the universe could possibly understand how great this is. I took Je Suis Passée around to John's house and tried to recruit him, but he just didn't get it, and I later realised that the man was a bit of a tit. Sometimes I wonder if my possessive fervour reached such intensity as to be to blame for why Hard Corps never really made it big. They couldn't escape from my devotion, such as it was, and how great I felt when I stuck Hard Corps on and wacked the volume right up. Fuck the Smiths - this is what it felt like to be young in the eighties.

All these years later I discover that Regine is regrettably no longer with us, and that they weren't even French. Some wonder has gone from the world, but this music still sounds so good it makes you want to either punch someone or have sex.

Shit.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Portion Control - Simulate Sensual (1983)


Unless I dreamed it, I'm still just about able to recall that brief couple of weeks when everyone thought Portion Control were going to be the next bunch of obscure industrial weirdies to hit the big time, although admittedly were we to enter discussion of just what I mean by everyone, we could be here all fucking afternoon. I seem to recall that Raise the Pulse got played by Kid Jensen or some other mulleted evening DJ, and then suddenly Test Department were on Multi-Coloured Swap Shop and we all forgot we'd ever cared about hard rhythmic electronics.

Living out in the sticks with record buying habits dictated by what I could afford with pocket money and what I brought home from my paper round, I found it fairly difficult to get hold of anything much by Portion Control for the purpose of finding out what they sounded like prior to declaring them my new favourite band that you've never heard of; but the Raise the Pulse 12" turned up in a local record shop, and it seemed to represent what Depeche Mode should have sounded like - which was good - providing an appealing contrast of shouting, machine gun drum machine, and a tinkly little keyboard riff played on a child's novelty organ most likely shaped like a table covered in moulded plastic cupcakes with a smiling teddy sat opposite. I always enjoyed the pleasingly authoritarian name suggesting nutrient slop dispensed to worker drones by means of a spigot, and the rumour that it derived from all three of them being employed in the canteen at the Houses of Parliament; but more than anything they remained mostly a great idea, at least for me. There were articles and reviews in fanzines peppered with intriguing track titles and the notion that Portion Control existed as two distinct technological entities - AMAG and VMAG, respectively Audio and Visual Media Assault Group. It's like they were from the fucking future or summink!

Inevitably, whilst not actually disappointed, I was a little underwhelmed when I finally got my mitts on product a couple of years later. I suppose I'd expected some formidably growling dystopian cybernaut resembling what Front 242 sounded like at the beginning of the nineties, but it more closely resembled a supermarket's own brand version of Cabaret Voltaire. This is the problem with the fetishisation of music technology - as was - namely that you really have to have something creative going on besides access to a synthesiser and an effects pedal, otherwise the chance is that your music will date pretty quickly, in some cases before you've even finished recording it.

The thing which strikes me about this era of Portion Control, at least as I listen to it in 2017, is that I could have done it myself without too much huffing and puffing. I recognise all of the equipment and what is done with that equipment, leaving little room for that old industrial magic - which I state mainly for the sake of contrast with the truism of everything from the allegedly industrial eighties now being declared amazing and ahead of its time as a matter of course. I Staggered Mentally was a great album, albeit a great album which sounded one fuck of a lot like Cabaret Voltaire, and rebranded as Solar Enemy they were astonishing live, but this early greatest not actually hits collection is interesting mainly as a record of its time. It's decent, but I suppose the hype was better.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The Art of Noise - Who's Afraid of the Art of Noise? (1984)


It was the timing which sucked me in, the timing combined with the novelty of a record made from replayed samples of existing sounds, something which then remained unknown outside the Fairlight CMI being put through its paces on an episode of Tomorrow's World. Back in 1984, I was obsessed with the Italian Futurists and felt they shared some sort of rebellious impulse in common with the music I tended to like; so when this lot turned up, openly acknowledging Luigi Russolo's Art of Noises manifesto and on a label named after one of Marinetti's concrete poems, it caught my attention; and yet something didn't quite sit right. It might have been some sort of misplaced proprietorial regard of Futurism on my part - these people were cashing in on the thing which only I knew about and only I really understood and they hadn't asked my permission; but also it was irritating how Trevor Horn, when asked about Zang Tumb Tumb, said only that it was an onomatopoeic percussive sound, adding I suppose it's rather Dada.

Next they seemed to be everywhere, and so much so that I heard every single track on this album long before I bought it, which was actually a couple of years later on a wet Saturday afternoon when I couldn't really find anything else in the record shop. By that point the thing had become so ingrained that it couldn't fail to sound good, as indeed it did, and as it still does. It's sharp, funny, and stupid, and it has all sorts of things going on, and it's beautifully produced as you would expect; but I don't know if it was ever important or even particularly ground breaking, as many have since claimed.

The samples were, so I am informed, mostly presets which came with the Fairlight CMI, so most of what Art of Noise did was in the arrangement, and presumably in Horn's ability to make it all sound as lush as a Ferrero Roche advert; because at best what we have here is what Throbbing Gristle would have been were they all nicely behaved Oxbridge graduates, which is why Paul Morley made for such a good fit. The clues are all over the place, not least in sampled bass lines playing what may as well have been Rock Around the Clock and so inadvertently foreshadowing Jive Bunny; and then more recently I rediscovered a tape of the Horn promoting the first Art of Noise record on the wireless, during which he opined:

I think the truth of it is that people don't learn how to play their instruments properly nowadays. They learn how to talk to the music press. They learn how to do their hair. They learn about what to wear and what to say, but the basic physical learning of - do you know of anybody in a group nowadays who is a good guitar player? Do you know if the guitar player in Duran Duran is a particularly good guitar player? In the old days you knew who was a good player, you knew that Eric Clapton [was a good guitar player].

Seriously, grandad, fuck the fuck off. Of course, Morley and Horn were only ever involved in the most negligible sense, at least according to J.J. Jeczalik, but it seems significant that they were able to hitch their wagons to the Art of Noise in the first place without anyone noticing a disparity. Morley dismissed later Art of Noise releases as novelty records, seemingly implying that this one should be considered high art, which doesn't really work. It's great pop music, but it was never art, which, considering how Art of Noise achieved a whole shitload of musical firsts, is quite shocking; but then you might also argue that Jive Bunny did a whole load of stuff no-one had done before.