Wednesday, 31 March 2021
Thursday, 25 March 2021
One of the best things about teaching from home, and I know that I'll be in a slight minority on this one, is the ability to do a spot of therapeutic ironing between classes. Yesterday I taught Djuna Barnes's dark modernist classic Nightwood for a couple of hours, then ironed until I was ready to face two hours of a departmental meeting. It's not that I see my colleagues as a pile of creased laundry in desperate need of a hot iron to the face at all. It's the contemplative nature of repetitively doing the same thing until perfection is achieved.
I know there are ironing-denialists who point to the intrinsically disordered nature of the universe and the inevitability of decay that comes with entropy and say 'what's the point?' For me, the pointlessness is the point. I know that anything I iron will be hopelessly creased within minutes of use, but for just a moment entropy – and its human facet, mortality – is arrested. There's little difference between writing a symphony, discovering a galaxy and producing the perfect crease: they're all ways to fill in the blank space before we surrender to the big sleep. I can't write symphonies, and all the admin that I could be doing instead accelerates the heat death of the universe rather than postpones it. I'm pretty sure that ironing is what Dylan Thomas had in mind when he wrote about raging against the dying of the light.
Anyway, today's records are 'Noise Vision 80' and 'Critical Gate' by Chicago band Assembly Line People Programme.
They're really notable for the high quality packaging - a real cut above most bands' early releases - and for being the first or nearly the first releases on Graham Coxon's label, Transcopic. As you can probably imagine if you know anything about the Blur guitarist's tastes, it's wonky punk-pop with a touch of Pavement and a lot of guitar. In a word, fun.
Wednesday, 17 March 2021
I am, as anyone familiar with me in IRL knows, an aficionado of lost or retro causes. I passionately believer, for instance, that it was a mistake for Victorian type-setters and sign makers to drop the hyphen in street names. Don't Paradise-street or the Bow-Street Runners just look lovely?
So anyway, one of the romantic causes I espouse in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which I joined as a student in 1993. I'm generally opposed to the use of other arms too, but nukes seemed and still seem to me to be a class apart. Partly because they're so disproportionate: not only do they kill every living thing around in the here and now, they poison the earth for generations. Partly too because they're so indiscriminate that there's no military use for them: they're so powerful that any use of nuclear weapons will destroy massive numbers of civilians. Then there's the imbalance: possession of nuclear weapons makes you all-powerful as long as you're prepared to use them, so you can bully all those peoples too civilised to think that ultimate might makes right. Then there's the financial cost: Britain keeps saying it's got no money for nurses' salaries, the Erasmus scheme, old people's social care, energy-efficient houses, overseas aid…and yet it spends hundreds of billions on nuclear weapons, largely rented from the United States and unusable without permission from the White House (that's why they keep calling it an 'independent nuclear deterrent' - because only the word 'nuclear' is true).
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I thought that the argument was long over. I know that various countries are developing nuclear weapons, or have undeclared stocks, but international law seems pretty clear that the use of nuclear weapons is illegal, and most of the official nuclear states have declared a (very theoretical) intention to disarm: the US and Russia have both reduced their stocks considerably. I kept my CND membership up as a quixotic gesture of recognition that Britain in particular needs to wise up. There are plenty of post-imperial countries that have gracefully settled into comfortable, prosperous, altruistic stances: the Scandinavian countries have done so particularly well. But the British keep going on about 'punching above our weight', a revealing metaphor that says an awful lot about those who wield it. Guys, nobody likes a bully. You started punching people in 1170 (it is Lá Féile Padraig, after all) and you've never stopped. Has it made you any friends? Why do you want to punch people so much?
All this is mere preamble. As you may have read, the UK government has decided to cut overseas aid to all the places it's invaded, impoverished and/or bombed, and has decided to buy more nukes, just as the rest of the world is thinking about settling its differences by talking. It's the British disease: bereft of any moral standing after centuries of brutal colonisation, it's clinging to its penile Empire substitutes to persuade itself that it matters. Brexit has obviously made this worse: having stormed out, Britain's decided to make everyone listen by threatening ultimate violence: Yes Minister's Sir Humphrey long ago explained (in a clip I can't find, damn it) that the UK has to have nuclear missiles simply because the French do.
The UK has a place on the Security Council and other bodies not because it's a force for good, or economically important, but because it was an early adopter of the means to kill everyone on the planet. That's what underlines the smooth diplomatic talk - blackmail. Imagine if Britain had to rely on its ethical purpose for international credibility. The laughter wouldn't bear thinking about.
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It depresses me beyond pills that the current government has decided to make some political capital from potential murder. Johnson, Sunak, Patel and some Spads sat round in Downing Street chortling as they realised they could 'own the libs' by spending a few hundred billion on genocide. Never mind international law and their commitment to gradually disarm: a front page of the Daily Mail is enough. Even more depressingly, they're wrong. Labour instituted the British nuclear weapons program because it too is deeply jingoistic, and because lots of the arms industry is unionised. When Johnson nukes, say, Yemen for causing (in the words of Priti Patel's new criminal offence) 'causing serious annoyance' (a ten-year sentence: you literally get less for rape), the Labour Party will quietly point out that there are several marginal seats with missile factories. A noble sacrifice for the socialist cause, I'm sure the Yemeni comrades will agree.
They're even threatening to nuke non-nuclear states (though I suppose this goes back to 1945) - apparently electronic warfare will qualify you to be turned into glass and radioactive ash, as though all computer viruses are stored on one big computer that you can drop a bomb on.
There's no coherent thought in this. Just despair that a supposedly civilised country would rather blackmail the world with threats of total annihilation than feed children or talk things through with their opponents. And this is why I'll never be a Wilde-style ironist. No sense of humour.
Tuesday, 16 March 2021
Back to obscurities for today's singles: Armstrong (Julian Pitt, from Wales) with some perfectly serviceable pop-rock - I've only these two singles, but apparently there are two albums. The front cover of the first one is unadorned black, hence the pic of the back. It's a split single with Mumbo Jet, another Newport band who have left no trace beyond this solitary song: I can't even post a recording.
Thursday, 11 March 2021
No, not really: you've been rick-rolled.
It feels wrong to chattily post about old songs the day after yet another woman, Sarah Everard, was murdered for the crime of being outside unattended. The outpouring of testimony from women on social media about the harassment and assaults they've suffered for daring to assume that public space is sexually neutral is astounding but not, sadly, surprising. When I taught a module on cities, psychogeography and urban space we talked about the gendered city, and gendered time - we would make maps of where was safe, where was inviting, and where wasn't, and how time, light and the seasons affected those things. It will shock none of you to learn, I hope, that sexual harassment was a near-daily experience to every woman in the class, and a had started when they were very, very young. Some laughed it off, some affected to, but not one said it had never happened. From those conversations also came disclosure of serious crimes too: again entirely unsurprisingly. This country, and most others from what I can see, is a male-supremacist state. 'Notallmen' runs the hashtag, but quite enough to ensure that a stroll down the street or a late-night drink is a gendered experience, whether as perpetrator or cheerleader: the long career of various politicians' sexual misconduct and the excuses regularly wheeled out make it clear that our culture is willing to tolerate an awful lot of rape because, well, I'm not sure. Because women aren't real people?
I'd also like to take a minute to point and laugh-cry at Scott Morrison (the Australian prime minister) and his clones in the UK parliament and elsewhere who preface their autocue statements of regret with the words 'as a husband/father of daughters…'. No: you shouldn't need to imagine someone you're personally related to being attacked before you realise that it's probably a bad thing. Empathy is good, but if yours has genetic limits, you shouldn't be anywhere near power. Or indeed anywhere near other human beings.
I think you get my point. Have some Riot Grrl for the day that's in it. They know.
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Wednesday, 10 March 2021
You may think you can see some records here, but all I see is a gaping void in my collection of Ash 7" singles. What remains are their increasingly less good songs as their youthful enthusiasm gradually wore off. What's missing are their earliest thrilling singles, 'Jack Names The Planets', 'Petrol' (which I had in the UK and Japanese releases) and 'Uncle Pat'. I had them, then I had to sell them along with 400 of my rarest singles, or give up my PhD.
Obviously I regret the loss of all of them, but these ones hurt because they were definitely the best songs Ash ever recorded: while some bands mature into greatness (Blur's second album is incomparably better than the first and the rest), Ash sadly didn't. They exploded onto the scene from Northern Ireland as 16 yr-olds - the newspapers loved the story of them skipping their GCSE exams to support the Rolling Stones). The first album was good. The second one was OK. Then they just faded into ordinariness, too dependent on their pop-punk sound while their youthful Irish distinctness got lost in the mix.
But for a brief moment, they were just the best. I'm still annoyed a housemate nicked my band t-shirt.
Tuesday, 9 March 2021
Now here's a band I miss. Not the most aspirational of names, but the single word echoes the early-90s trend (Blur, Suede, Pulp, Oasis, Salad, Lush, Curve, Ride, Elastica et al.) with the addition of a techno-sheen redolent of the electronic and krautrock scene - think Pram and Broadcast. Which his appropriate because while Appliance came along only in 1995 and didn't release an album until 1999, they melded a bit of the best of both those scenes. I don't know too much about the electronic side of their music, but I like the mix of krautrock, drone and classical minimalism that I do recognise.
Of these, I think I like Pacifica the best. Enjoy the icy sheen of machine-tooled pop.
Monday, 8 March 2021
(Actually, nothing in the Bible refers specifically to apples, as I keep writing on my students' Milton essays). But the remorseless progress of the alphabetical system brings me to The Apples In Stereo, whom I know are a cult, critics' favourite but I confess to only having this one single, 'The Bird That You Can't See' and the 2000 album The World Inside The Moon, midway in their catalogue.
It's not that I didn't intend to buy more singles or albums, but age tends to narrow your enthusiasms and the early 200s were economically thin: I was subsisting on an overdraft and a PhD bursary of £6,500 per year (always paid late, as a cheque, with my names misspelled, leading to long discussions with the bank: thanks, university!).
I really like this: it reminds me of that whole bunch of American bands who had pop tunes to burn and a twisted, often humorous sensibility: Pavement, obviously, but also Beulah, tons of bands on Little Darla, and Grandaddy. It's a delight to hear this pop gem once again. It's just so cheerfully American.
Wednesday, 3 March 2021
After yesterday's trash, here's a band from the same period who I really think have stood the test of time despite never approaching anything like popularity: Animals That Swim. Is the name awful? Yes, yes it is because it seems wilfully obscure and twee without having a witty referent that I can think of. But it doesn't matter because what they wrote was beautiful: thoughtful, muted chamber-pop in the tradition of Shelleyan Orphan without the occasional baroque excess that delightful band sometimes engaged in. They remind me a little of Cardinal and Eric Matthews, except with a more European sensibility.
The albums, 1994's Workshy and 1996's I Was The King, I Really Was The King are just lovely - these singles are clearly a bit more cheaply produced but 'Faded Glamour' does sum them up very nicely: Suede without the (glorious) histrionics, and sharing a detestation of ruin-porn with late-era Pulp. You can find the rest online pretty easily.
Tuesday, 2 March 2021
Thanks to the wonders of alphabetisation, yesterday's classic 'House of the Rising Sun' sits next to a bit of post-britpop fluff: 'Small' by The Animalhouse. I have an enduring weakness for spin-off bands, fuelled by a mania for completeness that isn't good for the soul or the wallet - I think I've an unparalleled collection of New Order splinter acts, for instance (New Order being Act 2 of Joy Division, really), and in the hope that while bands might have a brief period in which they catch the public's eye, they don't just stop being talented. Not always, anyway.
The Animalhouse were an attempt by most of the members of the wonderful Ride to regroup after the acrimonious rift between Andy Bell and Mark Gardener. It got so bad that the last album, Tarantula features nasty songs about each other, and the two sides of the vinyl version keep the Bell and Gardener-penned tracks strictly segregated. (Amazingly, a large amount of money effected a reunion in 2014 and they're still together).
In the meantime though, they went their separate and deeply unsuccessful ways, reduced to the margins by their own feuds and the juggernaut that was Britpop, crushing any attempt at nuance. The Animalhouse was Mark Gardener's outfit, after a spell releasing limited edition solo 7"s to general uninterest. It was pedestrian rubbish and you definitely shouldn't bother tracking down the single album they released before falling apart. This single just proves that bands are greater than the sum of their parts, and that craft and inspiration aren't the same thing at all. Also, it sounds like three different bad songs put together.
Monday, 1 March 2021
A very familiar song today, but one that still packs a huge amount into a few minutes - the haunting 'House of the Rising Sun' by The Animals.
I confess that I have little interest in 'The Sixties', especially the versions endlessly peddled by nostalgics: I like the occasional Beatles song but I'm with Public Enemy when it comes to the big beasts. Particularly the Rolling Stones. There is a version of the 60s I like: tracks like these by Joni Mitchell, Fairport Convention, Delia Derbyshire, Vashti Bunyan, Steve Reich, Phil Ochs, Meredith Monk, Milton Babbitt's Composition for Synthesizer, The Last Poets, early Velvet Underground and the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, Motown and Northern Soul and Buffy Sainte-Marie. I'm just not keen on those who preached revolution for money from their country mansions.
Not sure where I picked up this very battered copy - probably a charity shop. It's pretty scratched but it's still wonderful.
Friday, 26 February 2021
At some point in the late nineties I got transfixed by Northern Soul, that magical northern British subculture with its own aesthetic and moves. A friend's father had played me some Geno Washington live albums (still wonderful) and then I found out about the Northern Soul scene, still strong in places like Stoke and Wigan - you can still see people squeezing into some great clothes and pulling off audacious dance moves at all-nighters across the north and midlands. I couldn't get into the real collectors' circles on a student income, but I did buy quite a few compilations and re-releases: not being particularly competitive I was grateful for the advent of CD collections, whereas some of the scenesters resented their rarest records becoming commonly available. Two of my favourite tracks are well-known now: Dobie Gray's 'Out On The Floor'
and The Human Beinz' 'Nobody But Me'
but this 1979 Carol Anderson number is superb - beautifully melancholic but you can dance to it. She died unheralded in 1984.
Thursday, 25 February 2021
Compared with everything else I was buying at the time, American Music Club's 'Can You Help Me?' counts as a crowd-pleasing hit - Mark Eitzel's crew were critical darlings in the NME, Select and Vox, as well as in the inky fanzines I bought in the local record shop. Until I looked it up today I had no idea that 1994 was the eleventh year of their initial 12 year history: they sounded like classic 90s Americans to me.
Wednesday, 24 February 2021
I unashamedly adore this next record. After Britpop died of shame I got into post-rock quite heavily: Mogwai, Slint, Velvet Underground, Ectogram, Slowdive and the shoegazers were my gateway drugs into often wordless, krautrock or kosmische-influenced drone rock. It also appealed because I've long been into minimalist music - I find the incremental shifts in long, repetitive pieces profoundly moving. Try this Meredith Monk piece from 1971!
So one day in 1999 I found myself on my own in Cheltenham Town Hall for a whole day of electronic drone acts - mostly very shy people staring at their effects pedals and creating the most otherworldly noises. I bought this single - 'Misstype Doolittle' by AMP Studio - at the record stall there and subsequently bought everything that came out on Earworm Records - particularly Electric Sound of Joy. Isn't it lovely, as a physical object and piece of music?
Tuesday, 23 February 2021
…it's Alternative TV!
They were a big name on the post-punk circuit in the late 70s/early 80s because the frontman was Mark Perry (editor of Sniffin' Glue) alongside many, many other members, then reformed in the Nineties for another go. It must have been recommended to me because I can't recall ever knowing much about them or seeing them live.