Thursday, 12 October 2017

Third Door from the Left - Face the Firing Squad (1981)


Face the Firing Squad really feels like it should be referred to in the same sentences as Second Annual Report, The Voice of America, Tissue of Lies and other brooding classics of the admittedly loose genre which I can never quite bring myself to consider industrial. It dates from roughly the same era and I played it to death at the time, but being released as a cassette, I suppose it's inevitable that it shouldn't be so well remembered. Third Door from the Left were Kevin Thorne and Raye Calouri, who met at Throbbing Gristle's performance at the YMCA in 1979, and Kevin's name appears in the list of those invited to the recording of Heathen Earth, alongside members of Coil, Konstruktivists, and others you will have most likely heard of; and you may recall Kevin's name adorning the covers of numerous Chris & Cosey releases in his capacity as designer.

Anyway, we might lazily characterise Third Door as occupying a sort of half way point between Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle, or at least live Gristle. The comparison isn't entirely unjustified, or no more so than saying the Rolling Stones were just Charlie Patton for suburban whities; but there's a lot more going on than just strange sounds and dark moods. For starters, Third Door from the Left were never afraid of a guitar sounding like a guitar, and regardless of the pensive sense of menace, you might say they were significantly more accessible than anyone from whom they may have taken inspiration. The sheer emotional weight of It's Not Us still floors me thirty-five years later in ways that Joy Division never quite managed. Seriously, it makes New Dawn Fades sound like the theme music from the Generation Game.

This edition has been lovingly pressed up as a record by Vinyl on Demand, meaning no more coughing up hundreds of quid on Discogs for a Woolworths cassette which probably won't play. The quality remains as it was on the original cassette release, which isn't a problem as it was a fairly decent recording given the limitations of the equipment of the time. At the risk of sounding like a bit of a knob, I'd suggest that this one is essential.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Dr. Dooom - First Come, First Served (1999)


It took me a while to come round to Kool Keith, and what eventually swung it was a stack of his albums for a couple of quid each in a second-hand place in Camberwell. Without actually having heard the man's work, I'd received the impression of his being another one of those rappers for people who don't actually like rap. This came from recommendations by, amongst others, Shaun Robert, formerly author of weirdy sound art cassettes under the name factor X, who, having inspected my shelves of rap CDs, opined something like, I'm a bit surprised that you don't have any Kool Keith, which sounded faintly like sneering at the time. We'd probably just had a disagreement over the merits of Björk, my position being that there aren't any, so Kool Keith became rap for people who like Björk and who probably read The Wire, to my way of thinking; and of course I was wrong.

I warmed to the idea of the man when he released an album on Esham's label, Gotham Overcore - which is probably ass-backwards, but never mind; and then when he sang the praises of low-brow rap, as the journalist termed it, in the pages of Vibe or The Source or one of those, specifically No Limit and other labels keeping Pen & Pixel in business. I could have just listened to his records, of course, but that would have been too easy.

First Come, First Served, defiantly released with another eye-watering Pen & Pixel cover, was recorded by one of Keith's numerous personalities, specifically the one which really seems to focus what I like about the guy, although appreciate may be a better word than like. He raps like a nutter, lines spat out with just a hint of anger, like you've spilled his pint but the situation hasn't quite made it out into the pub car park; and he's about four-thousand times more eloquent than most rappers. It all spills out, even sluices out in a barrage of faintly queasy and upsetting images, and it's like that moment where you take out the trash and lift the lid of the wheelie bin and get just a whiff before you remember to hold your breath. Keith seems fixated on detritus and snack food and rubbish, anything with a bit of a pong, as a sort of combined inversion and refutation of just about everything else which has ever happened in rap. If he wasn't so fucking good at it, you could be forgiven for thinking he hates the genre. There's not a lot of gold, and nor are the fizzy millionaire drinks aflowing - just about every other liquid you might care to mention but probably wouldn't, but definitely not a lot of Alizé. In fact, the imagery of dollar store diapers, cereal, and egg shells is of such concentration that if you wrote everything he said down, I'm pretty sure it would read like a less alcoholic Bukowski.

What he's actually saying is similarly pungent, and with not very much that would have seemed out of place in one of the earlier, more harrowing John Waters films. This is because he's keeping it real, as we say, but really real, the sort of real which is customarily subject to a restraining order. His message to fellow artistes is You Live at Home with Your Mom, and once you compare this album with whatever else has been doing the rounds, you realise that they do.

Musically, it's a little basic, just hard atmospheric beats keeping a rhythm to the justifiably arrogant dispensation of bile, which is how it should be. Anything stronger would mask the odour and would miss the point, so instead we get hints of turd-strewn sidewalks, film soundtracks, and Peter Lorre on full ooze sliming his way around a backing vocal, knocking on your door at midnight to apologise for the smell from the apartment across the hall, and hey, you got any toilet paper?

First Come, First Served is a classic, no argument, and I think I need a shower.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Death Magazine 52 (2011)


The second proper gig I ever saw was Whitehouse at the Mermaid in Birmingham on the 27th of August, 1983 - here defining a proper gig as anything loud in a place selling booze and which wasn't my parents taking me to see Barbara Dickson, whenever that was. Whitehouse were supported by the excellent Family Patrol Group and D. Mag 52 / SHC - as they were billed on the poster - who were interesting but not as good, just a loud wall of noise, like Family Patrol Group but somehow lacking the dynamic. I struck up a correspondence with Colin of Family Patrol Group, who told me that the name of the other band was short for Death Magazine 52, and that they sometimes played as Spontaneous Human Combustion but still hadn't decided which name they preferred.

I'm not in D. Mag 52 / SHC, but the other two are. I'll give you the D. Mag 52 / SHC potted history if you like. Originally a large band of around nine members, fluctuating line up depending on who could attend, no rehearsals, just found instruments before gigs usually. Mainly metal bashing, drums, and other percussion, like Test Dept at times. Slimmed to five, four, or six piece - then mainly metal, tapes and vocals. Then down to two hardcore members - others thrown out or dissuaded. No gigs, but still fluctuating as people replace one another. At the Mermaid, Simon was helped out by a friend. The other hardcore member - Paul - was on 'holiday'. Truth is he was a bit embarrassed at supporting Whitehouse. I think he felt it was pointless trying to compete with them, as we all did, but nevertheless we didn't bottle out. After Family Patrol Group degenerated to nothing, mainly because of my absence at Sunday afternoon jamming sessions, Mike Grant, Family Patrol Group vocalist, was looking for gigs to play as D. Mag 52 / SHC, playing alongside Simon and Paul with Greg, our tape person. They got two, one at a pub which has a regular free spot on Monday evenings, and the second was at an all day festival where Nick Lowe was the main artist. They got ₤100 to play this, but I was told they used ₤80 in preparation by going into the recording studio to record backing tapes. I think it may have been Mike Grant's idea as he had not been into a studio before and was quite keen to do so. Anyhow, I didn't go to either of the above two, mainly due to Mike Grant falling out with me. Nothing serious, just once when we were in a pub he ignored me and he's never spoken since.

So they were watchable but nothing amazing, possibly having strayed from their sonic comfort zone for fear of sounding like a Level 42 tribute act when opening for Whitehouse. They made grating electronic noises with boxes and pedals, leaving me without much reason to remember them beyond just something I'd seen at some point. All the same, I was quite excited when I heard Harbinger had put out this posthumous collection on double vinyl, a release implying hidden or previously unknown qualities because otherwise, there would be no reason for so lavish a reissue of material by a group we'd all forgotten, even those of us who'd actually heard of them in the first place.

Now, thirty or so years later, Colin's description makes a little more sense, because it didn't seem to describe the group I'd seen at the Mermaid; and I suspect some of the studio material included here may be the very same as he described above.

What we have is a fairly early noise group, certainly pioneers in that whole Birmingham noise scene which yielded the likes of Final, Con-Dom, Smear Campaign, and ultimately even Godflesh and Napalm Death - and it's certainly significant that Mike Dando of Con-Dom was in one line up of Death Magazine 52. I've a feeling that may even be a picture of him on the back cover with the Tears for Fears haircut. This is a noise group before everything got caught up in the arms race to see who could be loudest, Naziest and most pornographic, back when we were all just fucking around to see what would happen; and amazingly, although I expected this to be a complete racket, it turns out that Death Magazine 52, left to their own devices, occupied a patch of weirdy musical hinterland roughly equidistant from Einstürzende Neubauten and 23 Skidoo - blowing, banging, some tapes, and plenty of rhythm. It was never anything unique, but this collection really captures the excitement of a young band trying shit out and seeing what happens, and even trying that shit out in front of paying audiences - as can be heard on the live disc which notably includes a gig at three in the afternoon at some girls' school, and then at the increasingly legendary Equinox Event with Philip Best, although I'm not sure if he was on stage or is simply the loudest voice shouting bollocks as the cops show up towards the end of the tape, yet again.

The quality is a little basic but decent for what it is, and Death Magazine 52 will never be remembered as anything particularly important or seminal, but nevertheless these two discs really capture something a lot more vital than whichever improvised feedback bore you paid fifty squid to see at the South Bank this week.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Wreckless Eric - amERICa (2015)


Wreckless Eric made a huge impression on me at an early age, and at least a couple of years before I actually knowingly heard any of his records. Most of my taste in music is fairly firmly rooted in me and Grez raiding his older brother's bedroom when we were teenagers. Grez's older brother - or Martin to his friends, that being a category which didn't include us - had all these amazing albums by people we'd never heard of, Alternative TV, Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, Faust, the Residents, Skrewdriver…

Well, it was All Skrewed Up which I believe predates the racist phase, but let's not get off the subject. Amongst Martin's records were several by Wreckless Eric, notably that legendary 10" album on brown vinyl; you know the one. If you don't, might I suggest euthanasia followed by reincarnation and then trying your hardest to get it fucking right next time around? How many 10" brown vinyl albums have there ever been?

Assuming we all know what I'm talking about, I maintain that the aforementioned 10" is blessed with one of the greatest covers ever. Eric looks like he's drunk, about to fall over, but really doesn't give a shit because he's having an amazing time regardless; and then there's that jacket, some funky print of eagles soaring across what probably isn't silk - all very New Faces or Opportunity Knocks and yet somehow so punk rock as to make most of those King's Road clowns look like ELO. Whether you ever regarded Wreckless Eric as punk rock probably depends on where you were stood at the time, but I guess it's okay if we keep in mind that the point of punk rock, at least according to some Sex Pistol or other, was not to destroy rock 'n' roll so much as to take it back to its roots, to take it back from all the bouffant hairdo fuckers who'd lost sight of what it was supposed to do in the first place, Geoff Lynne.

So, in accordance with my vaguely punky roots, I still find myself getting ready to sneer at the slightest suggestion of artists working past their sell-by date, but it's just a knee jerk thing, and it really doesn't apply to Wreckless Eric; because this isn't a comeback album, nor recapturing the glory days, nor sensitive sound recordings of all his new forest pals in Papua New Guinea, nor a true return to form as the perpetually misleading promise always has it, nor our man dabbling with ambient sludgestep; because amERICa is simply a new Wreckless Eric album and that's all you should need to know.

May as well cover the full distance and take the remaining few steps up my own arse, seeing as we've come all this way.

It took me a couple of years, but I chanced across the brown vinyl 10" in a second hand place in Norwich, and I bought it because Grez and myself had never got around to actually playing his brother's copy, for some reason. I bought it because I recognised the cover and I knew it would be good, as indeed it was. In fact it was more than just good. It was one of those greatest album ever recorded deals, or that's how it seems when you're in the middle of listening to the thing, playing air guitar in front of the bedroom mirror and miming along to Reconnez Cherie. It's difficult to pin down what made Eric seem so unique, and why I can't help bristling a little whenever I hear that pub rock song by Denim. He has an ear for a tune, and a weird little voice which sounds more like one of your mates than anyone you'd expect to hear on a record, and somehow it all comes together with such raw honesty that it would hurt if it didn't also have a decent sense of humour - it's something along these lines. Stand Wreckless Eric next to almost anyone you care to mention and the other person will look like a fake, a part-timer, an idiot with no idea what he or she is doing; and the crucial detail is that unlike so many rock 'n' roll hall of fame bores, Eric just gets on with it. He really is all about the craft unhindered by bullshit of any stripe. I had an argument with my mother about Shakespeare, her position being that the works of Shakespeare are the greatest things written in the English language because, whatever it is you wish to express, there will always be one particular way to say it which works better than all the others, and which is the most fluent; and so everything Shakespeare has said has been the best way to say that thing. I'm still not that bothered about Shakespeare, but I take the point and I'd say it applies just as well to the songs of Wreckless Eric. In terms of the heart, it doesn't get better than this. It speaks to me about my life, I suppose you'd say.

amERICa is Wreckless Eric's response to his having moved to the United states, which speaks to me about my life with particular resonance because that's what I've done too, and I know exactly what he's talking about. There's a faint country twang, but it still rocks like that bloke in the print jacket, and the honesty is both funny, painful, and even a little sad, just like on the best soul or blues records; and Transitory Thing nearly tears my fucking heart out each time I play it. Bloody hell. At the risk of hyperbole, amERICa might even be the greatest album ever recorded.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Bruce Woolley & the Camera Club - English Garden (1979)


Much like a newly hatched duckling, I fixated on Bruce Woolley's Camera Club at an early age, albeit briefly. Graham lent me his Devo album, heralding my realisation of there being bands which made good records that weren't played on the radio, and which sometimes didn't even get in the charts. Somehow I'd assumed that all records made it into the charts. This was around the time that Look! Hear! first aired on the telly, Look! Hear! being a regional BBC magazine show presented by Toyah Willcox and featuring the sort of stuff which the kids on the street were into, yeah? Look! Hear! featured a few of those bands who weren't played on the radio and didn't even get in the charts, and so I began compiling a list in the back of one of my school books. I needed to remember the names so I could look out for their records. I've a feeling the list wasn't actually very long, maybe just three or four of them. Neon Hearts were in there, having made a big impression on me, as was Bruce Woolley, but I don't recall any of the others.

So there was a bit of a gap between my taking down the name and finding the record - purely by chance - probably about thirty years. I couldn't remember what I'd thought was so great about the Camera Club at the time, and initial spins left me puzzled. It was power pop with a skinny tie and an overly ornate keyboard, really just like a lot of other stuff which had been around at the time and which had struck me as interesting mainly on the grounds that it wasn't ELO, that it hadn't been played by Dave Lee Travis on his smugly flabby show, and that it didn't sound like it would rather be in California; and yet, the more I listen to this record, the more I discern its own unique identity.

English Garden is of its era, more or less prog rock hopefuls moving with the times by incorporating a few jagged edges into their sound, but at least for the sake of an interesting record. In terms of musicianship, it has more in common with Genesis and that lot, which probably shouldn't be too surprising given the involvement of Thomas Dolby before he'd even started shaving, and that Woolley co-wrote Video Killed the Radio Star and Clean Clean with Trevor Horn and the other Buggle. Camera Club renderings of both songs are included here. Radio Star seems a bit too smooth for its own good, but the latter improves on the better known version. What makes the album is personality and good old fashioned proggy song-writing plucking all manner of esoteric subjects or angles from the ether. In this respect, English Garden makes me think of Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel with a noseful of speed - on which subject, I can't help but notice a parallel between the back cover of this record and the front of Harley's The Human Menagerie.

Considering this was the guy who wrote Video Killed the Radio Star, it's surprising how little of it you could really describe as immediate, but it really rewards the effort if you give it time - vaguely punky and yet lyrical with Queen style vocal harmonies. English Garden occasionally sounds like the theme music for regional news programmes of the seventies, and I'm thinking Weekend World rather than Midlands Today. This one really creeps up on you and ultimately it feels a more rounded, satisfying work than anything from Woolley's more famous writing partners.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

David Bowie - Let's Dance (1983)


Just to reiterate, I drifted away after the third or fourth album hailed as a true return to form by latecomer Bowie zombies who had discovered the bloke when he played a whispy Gandalf in Labyrinth. I longed for a return to greatness, but time and again those amazing comeback and this time I'm not joking records proved themselves unlistenable. After Black Tie White Noise turned out to be an improvement only in the sense that a B.A. Robertson album is probably an improvement on anything by ELO, I decided that enough was enough. Of course it turns out that he eventually did remember how to make a decent record, and weirdly I've come to regard the run of albums from Heathen through to Blackstar as his best work. So, all you gormless wankers who spent the eighties crowing he's back and he's brilliant at every lame Tina Turner team-up, every guest spot with Gordon the Gopher, thanks for fucking nothing, you stupid cunts.

Anyway, it seemed like time to take the plunge and get hold of this one on the grounds that I may have been wrong. Let's Dance was a great single, but I hated China Girl with its plinky-plonky something Chinese this way comes riff, and the album cover looks like a card you'd buy for a fourteen year old boy. All that's missing are the words on your birthday and a racing car in the lower right corner; but the problem wasn't just that Bowie, having grown tired of pretending to read Albert Camus, wanted to be a pop star again. The problem was also that with the best will in the world, Let's Dance was never going to sound great stood next to Scary Monsters.

I've now played the thing a million times so as to give it every possible opportunity to sink in and to work whatever magic it may have, and okay - I will grudgingly concede that it isn't that bad, generally speaking. I can see how Dave may have felt inclined to revisit his roots, specifically his rhythm and blues roots as heard on those Lower Third records, because the problem with the sort of introspection which had informed his previous four or five albums is that one eventually gets sick of the sound of one's own voice, and so I guess he just wanted to have fun making a record again. With that in mind, it's to his credit that he therefore made a vaguely decent record with Let's Dance in so much as that it goes back to his roots without sounding like an exercise in nostalgia, even moving things forward a little in trying something new with the big, live, occasionally even raw, sound of Nile Rodgers' production. I suppose then this is almost Bowie's punk album, at least in spirit, or certainly more so than the austere noodling of Low or Heroes.

I can appreciate this record a little better these days, particularly given that The Next Day sounds like him trying to get Let's Dance right in a couple of places, but it nevertheless remains a flawed album. This investigation has reminded me that Modern Love was also a great single, and that China Girl would be decent were it not for the Charlie Chan riff; but if you took away either Modern Love or the title song, you'd be left with a great single and six above average b-sides. I firmly believe there's a case for Let's Dance as a better album than Low, Heroes, or Lodger, but I don't know whether that's really saying anything.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Above the Law - Livin' Like Hustlers (1990)


I seem to have lost touch with what's going on right now, musically speaking, and particularly where it comes to rap. I'm aware of some dude called Chance because I think he was on a reality show which I didn't watch, and there was also some new guy pissing people off by suggesting that lyrical ability was never important. I think he may have been called Future, unless that was someone else. The reasons for my disassociation are, I suppose, that I buy most of my rap on CD from second hand stores and I don't really do downloads or YouTube. I don't have the patience. Also, I'm about two-hundred years old and I've never really given much of a shit about keeping my finger on any particular pulse. I like new shit, but I'm not going to seek it out purely for the sake of seeking it out.

At the same time, I've always found it kind of irritating when old people bang on about how everything used to be so much better than it is now and whatever it is you're listening to will never have the passion or musicality of B.A. Robertson in his heyday. That was some shit to see, I tell you what.

Nevertheless, listening to Above the Law really makes me wonder whether the old fart contingent don't have a point when it comes to that which rap once had, but which it no longer has - from what I can tell, not that I'm really qualified to comment; so I suppose I mean what rap once had which had begun to look kind of thin on the ground by 2005 when I was last aware of any of this stuff. I say rap, but I mean hip-hop, because that seems to be the element we've lost, possibly.

Above the Law were right there at the nativity of what has come to be known as gangsta. They were signed to Eazy E's Ruthless label back when Dre and pals were still talking to each other, and I always had the impression that someone somewhere hoped they would be the next NWA; and given that Above the Law's Cold187um was fucking about with Parliament samples long before The Chronic or even Efil4Zaggin, the landscape would have looked very different without them, and it seems fair to say that they never received the recognition they deserved. Where NWA were a punch in the face, Above the Law went for a jazzier, more relaxed vibe. Their commitment to telling it like it was is obvious from a glance at the track list with titles like Untouchable, Another Execution, Menace to Society, and so on, but the mood is uptempo, soulful and even kind of happy. It's a sunny day album, keeping in mind that the worst aspects of reality may choose to intrude even when the sun is shining. Most startling of all, at least as I listen to this in 2017, is that the lads were still rapping like the Treacherous Three - as Ice Cube once put it - an old school sing-song cadence breaking what was seen as new lyrical ground, at least in mainstream terms. Musically we're only just into the era of sampling, still staying true to the turntable aesthetic, and skipping along on scratchy old Motown loops, piano riffs and pounding bass; and it's this bounce - the very thing from which hip-hop took it's name, according to some dude in the Bronx - which was getting thin on the ground even by '95; and it's not just the sound. It's what the sound represents - kids making music out of stuff they found on the local dump because who can afford a sampler, a studio, or any of that fancy shit? Rap lost the hunger which necessitated the sort of inventive spirit which made albums such as this one sound so fucking raw and out there and dangerous.

Of course, I'm not suggesting it would be any better if everything had just stayed the same for the sake of it. There's no need for anyone to remake this album given that it already exists, but it should at least be better remembered. I don't know if rap is dying on its arse, or whether it just looks like that from here. Perhaps music itself is over as a medium, given the popularity of Ed Sheerhan, Mumford & Sons, and Imagine Dragons, artists I can't even be bothered to hate with any conviction.

I don't know.

I just don't know.

Livin' Like Hustlers is very, very good though. That's what you should take away from this.