Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Swans - White Light from the Mouth of Infinity (1991)


My first encounter with the Swans was hearing Time is Money on Peel, a track with which I became briefly obsessed. It suggested a New York version of Test Dept channelling Whitehouse, an impression which I guess might be considered fairly perceptive given Michael Gira citing the influence of Whitehouse in one of the music papers a little later. Naturally I owned everything I'd been able to find within the space of another month - Filth, Greed, Cop and a stack of twelves. I'd initially experienced some shock at just how slow that material was after the moderately jaunty Time is Money, but I got over it and played those records to death, fascinated by how such a racket could ingrain itself in my mind's ear so profoundly. Of course, it was more than just the noise. It was also the atmosphere, dark and genuinely unsettling without any of the usual pantomime by which music artists tend to summon a bad vibe. I'd been horrified by Whitehouse the first time I heard them, but the Swans seemed to go much further, much deeper, inverting William Bennett's psychotic abuse as something more reflective, closer to self-harm.

Then came Children of God which wasn't actually very good, so poor in fact, that ownership of the related Love Will Tear Us Apart 12" single - another one of those Joy Division covers which improves on the original - means there's no point owning the album given that Our Love Lies is on the b-side, that being the only decent track.

So that was the point at which I drifted away. I didn't hear anything about The Burning World or White Light which made me want to listen to them. They're very good, I was told a couple of times, but I'd already lost interest. The hypothetical Swans record full of jangly songs sounded like it would be about as much use as a one-legged man at an arse kicking competition; and yet, there I was in Rough Trade in Covent Garden in 1992, and I hadn't bought a record for a while, and the only thing which seemed worth a tickle was Love of Life, and how bad could it be? Curiosity got the better of me.

I got home, slapped it on the Dansette, and was startled to find that the Swans had turned into Big Country while I'd been looking the other way. It sounded nothing like their previous work, and yet had the same grinding quality, the same pensive intensity combined with an unfamiliar, more positive current, like golden rays of sunshine giving contrast to the shadows 'n' shit. I loved it immediately, and then bought nothing further because everyone had stopped making records - or vinyls as tosspots call them these days. Ed Pinsent slipped me a copy of the Swans Are Dead double CD when someone sent it to the Sound Projector for review, but it was clear that something had gone wrong. Swans had devolved to a slow jangly mess, the sleigh bell heavy soundtrack to one of those BBC Christmas idents with kids dressed as snowmen ice-skating around a giant Christmas pudding shaped like the number two, except in this case with the addition of John Kerry reading a speech about disappointment. I still dig out Swans Are Dead from time to time, and it continues to leave me unmoved.

Eventually it occurred to me that maybe I'd missed out with The Burning World and White Light, given that Love of Life had become one of my favourite records of all time. I found The Burning World on Discogs, which happily coincided with a vinyl reissue of this one; because I have all of the others on vinyl so that's how I'd like to keep it, if it's all the same to you.

The Burning World came as a shock, roughly being the Swans as the Dubliners doing songs with choruses and everything, and even that cheeky cover of Nice Legs, Shame About the Face. It's not amazing, but it pisses all over Children of God, and Can't Find My Way Home is pretty powerful.

Oddly, considering how it forms the jam in a sandwich of two distinctly song-orientated albums, White Light from the Mouth of Infinity somehow sounds like the intermediary stage between Children of God and The Burning World.

It's okay. I'll get to the point soon. I'm even starting to bore myself.

Technically speaking, I've waited twenty-one years to hear this record, and most of that time has been characterised by people telling me how much I've missed out; but then I'm referring to Swans fans here, and the worst aspect of anything will always be its stupid fucking fans. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this band seem to have attracted an unusually joyless bunch of pillocks with not a chuckle muscle to share betwixt the entire sorry bunch. I'm sure you will have encountered one or two as they wend their wanky way to some yawnsome retrospective at the Barbican, fresh from sitting alone and frowning in an empty room whilst clutching a single rose. Did you see that piece on Derek Bailey in The Wire last month?

No, I fucking didnae.

Anyway, I play White Light from the Mouth of Infinity over and over and, month after month, it just won't stop sounding like the long, slow BBC jingle of an unusually depressing Christmas.

Love Will Save You eventually begins to resemble something half decent, suggesting the old Swans magic I remember, and Failure is okay, and some of the others seem all right; but contrast this with the direct celestial communication from God himself which was Love of Life, and it turns out that this was just another one of those intermediary records all along.

So now I know.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Public Image Ltd. - This is PIL (2012)


I picked this up when it came out, having considered myself a fan of this particular extension of Lydon's clever strategy of refusing to play the showbiz game by playing the showbiz game, thereby subverting the oh so predictable expectation of him refusing to play the showbiz game by not playing the showbiz game. It came out in 2012, and yet this is probably the second or third time I've played the thing, and only now do I understand why that should be.

It's because it's just not much good.

Over the years, I've extended the benefit of my doubt to such a distance that it now reaches out past Lydon himself, off into space, only tailing off somewhere beyond Pluto. All that crap way, way back in the day about being a limited company rather than a band didn't seem such a big deal because I was a teenager at the time and thus easily impressed. Then came PIL the wilfully awful cabaret act, and PIL the stadium rock band, both of which were forgiveable because of genuinely great albums, maybe even the best of Lydon's career - at least in my view. The Sex Pistols reunion seemed a natural if slightly sarcastic progression, and then there was I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here and the butter advert, and still I remained untroubled by a man who had made his living from acting like a cock once again acting like a cock. It was funny, if anything; but as for Lydon the Trumpanzee, the man who admires Nigel Farage because Nigel Farage told Bob Geldof to get a haircut and it's such a wheeze when someone upsets a Leftie do-gooder - as for the Lydon who subverts our oh so predictable expectations of him not being a clueless reactionary tosspot by being a clueless reactionary tosspot: I can't get behind that.

Now he just sounds like a chimp jumping up and down, doing the trademarked popeyed leer and screeching look at me! Maybe he always sounded that way. It's become impossible to ignore that he never really had that much going on beyond two jokes and a funny story, an endearing ability to piss people off - usually those who deserved it - and the good fortune to end up in bands with Steve Jones, Jah Wobble, Keith Levene or John McGeoch. This time he's been lucky enough to end up in a band with Lu Edmonds, the drummer from the Pop Group, and a bloke who used to play bass for the Spice Girls; and truthfully, they get a decent groove going between them, something which sounds tantalisingly close to those Metal Box years, at least in spirit; but it's ruined as soon as Lydon opens his gob to wail the usual variation on yes, it's me, my name is John, and I'm here to defy your oh so predictable expectations, I rather think you'll find... Had he been mixed at about the level of an interestingly spooky sound effect - which I suppose is his strength, it could be argued - it might have worked, but no - he's here, he's loud, he's in your face as bloody usual, the man who makes fucking Porridge seem like a self-effacing model of restraint and nuance.

This could have been a great album, but it isn't.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Michael Jackson - Off the Wall (1979)

What the hell is he doing with his trousers?

No-one is more surprised than I am. There was some documentary about the making of this album on the television, and I'd been eating steak and beans and had thus become too fat to reach the remote, and as I watched I realised that I've always liked Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough and Off the Wall even if I'm only now able to admit it to myself. Punk rock is probably to blame. Whilst it felt great - even liberating - to at last be able to say actually, I think Gentle Giant are shit, we threw a whole lot of babies out with that bathwater back in the days of our Cromwellian haste to reduce our chosen grooves to just the good stuff - which was mainly the Damned, obviously. Unfortunately, as often happens with primarily honkeycentric musical subcultures, there was a certain unspoken resistance to some aspects of black culture which make for uncomfortable viewing with hindsight - not quite the full-on xenophobia of disco sucks, but something in that direction, as demonstrated in the punk preference for those realms of black culture most closely resembling itself - reggae and sound systems rather than that gay stuff which was always on the radio, beloved of casuals, soul boys, squares, and other unenlightened wage-slave losers who'd probably never even heard of Mark Perry.

Of course, you don't seem to hear much Jonathan King on the wireless these days, and it can be similarly difficult getting past what Michael Jackson became - some creepy white dude with the emotional development of an eight-year old; but it's a testament to the quality of his music, at least his decent music, that it still sounds great, a wonderful piece of what was, rather than simply the formative efforts of a man with an illegal hobby. So, relegating the beastliness to the dying days, the deeds of a complete fuck-up who regrettably no longer mattered in any meaningful sense, truly a victim of his own success, let's go back to when Michael was just a young black dude with a great voice and anatomically improbable moves.

Off the Wall is still hailed as a classic, despite everything; and it's a classic providing you skip past Girlfriend and She's Out of My Life - awful balladic landfill of the kind which continues to blight many an R&B album. I don't know why they do it. Maybe some producer suggests a couple of ballads shoved in there. Let's have a couple of softer numbers, he suggests in my imagination, otherwise everyone's going to dismiss our masterpiece as just another disco record, and no-one will take it seriously.

Girlfriend was written by Paul McCartney, and you can really tell. It probably would have sounded okay in 1964 with all the moptop woooh and yeeeah embellishments, but in 1979 on Off the Wall, it wasn't even as good as the Wings version, if you can imagine that; and She's Out of My Life is one of those sappy songs turded out by some balding New Yorker with a piano who also wrote hits for other major stars you couldn't pay me to listen to.

Continuing on the negative tip, Off the Wall kind of sags towards the end, even without the two stinkers. Whilst the last few tracks are decent, it feels almost as though they could just as easily have been above average b-sides, and this is partially the fault of the album opening with such amazing material. Of course it was just disco music, but Jesus - with hindsight it all sounds so live and sharp and tight as fuck, with only a synth bass having derived from any button pushing. You already know how the strings sound, and the horn section, because you've heard Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough a million times; as have I, and yet direct off the record it may as well be the first time - it's that fresh. It sounds so and new and positive that it has me all hopeful as I look forward to the advent of the Sinclair ZX81. I doubt any of them would have admitted it, but this was what all those white guys in German vests with trumpets desperately wanted to sound like.

It isn't a classic, but it sort of is if you squint a bit and we pretend there are only eight tracks on the record rather than ten. Also, it's nice to recall that Jackson's once legendary status was not entirely unjustified, and so it's probably better to remember him as he was than as he became.